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  • Josh Green

The Stereotype: Advertising's Dirty Little Habit

Updated: Jun 5, 2022

Somewhere over the course of the past 5-10 years, our industry came to the vague (and perhaps unsettling) realisation that we probably needed to move away from stereotypes.

We recognised that this form of ‘advertising shorthand’ might actually be doing more harm than good, reducing people to a finite series of caricatures rather than revelling in the richly diverse fabric of actual society.

To date, while this realisation has had some repercussions, it feels like it has largely remained just that - a realisation yet to translate into industry wide behaviour.

Yes, today we see a broader spectrum of representation in some ads and certain countries have gone as far as to legislate against stereotypes in advertising - most notably the UK.

However, in Australia, I can’t shake off the sneaking suspicion that we’re not quite there yet.

After all, at face value, a stereotype is a compelling proposition for a marketer. When you have 6 seconds to maximise brand linkage, communicate the offer, include a pack shot, disrupt the category and deliver incremental ROI, speed is of the essence. And a stereotype is a short cut – a much leaned upon accelerator of the narrative.

Similarly, from a media perspective, we’re still largely reliant on quantifiable demographic factors (age, sex, location) to determine the most appropriate way to reach our audience.

As Carat’s Alice Raitt so aptly observed in relation to the binary nature of our databases:

“In the tools that underpin audience analysis in our industry, there are fewer ways to cut an audience’s gender and sexuality than there are letters in LGBTQI.” (AdNews, 24 June 2021)

This has a knock-on effect for how we measure results as well. I’ll hazard a guess and suggest that for a volume-focused campaign, the case study is going to prioritise a combined reach figure far beyond the data that talks to how we were able to accurately define and connect with individuals.

So, what has to give?

The initial step is moving beyond a mere realisation that stereotypes are superficial and actually start to understand how the perpetuation of stereotypes can have a negative impact on our audience.

In the 2019 paper ‘Community Responses to Gender Portrayals in Advertising’, researchers Lauren Gurrieri, Mandy McKenzie & Megan Bugden explored the emotional and health implications that gender stereotypes can have on audiences, highlighting their role in the creation of a cultural environment where individuals feel the need to adhere to limiting, gendered traits.

For women in particular, the use of stereotypes contributes to concerns with body image, relationships and self-worth. Even more disturbing is the link drawn between gendered stereotypes and violence towards women.

If that wasn’t sufficiently concerning - at least from a societal standpoint - a recent piece in the European Journal of Marketing from the Stockholm School of Economics drives home the point in the language of a CMO. In short, this research suggests that stereotyped representation in ads has a negative impact on brand-related effects, i.e. it doesn’t work.

While stereotypes might be a straightforward route, they certainly don’t make advertising any more effective, nor do they help forge a closer bond with consumers.

Recognising this does not mean the path forward is clear by any means. The very systems and tools that we predicate much of our work on support a stereotype-based approach to both representation and audiences but that doesn’t mean we can’t challenge them.

From a creative perspective, there is enormous scope (and richness) in pursuing an intersectional approach to representation in the ads that we push out in the world.

While there are certainly more articulate, pithier definitions for this, mine is based on the active rejection of tokenism and norms.

It’s not enough to tick off the diversity box. We need to think about the how and the why that sits behind that diverse representation. It’s a learning process that is constant and demands reflection and discussion.

The same applies to the way we define the audiences who are then served these ads.

How do we dig into psychographic rather than demographic attributes to define our audience? What might that uncover that we’d otherwise not know? How might that shape the future of brands?

Looking to the much discussed ‘cookie-less future’, these are the questions that can assist us in reframing the way we not only target but resonate with audiences; by thinking less about who they are and more about what they’re driven by and where they gravitate to.

All of this is not to say that the actual shift from stereotypes will be easy. It will require a tremendous commitment to both learning and educating. Afterall, the ubiquity of highly stereotyped consumer personas is rife.

I imagine I speak for many when I reminisce on the sheer number of briefs I’ve read that call out a target audience of ‘busy mums’.

No, the change will not be immediate, but the effort to drive it can be.

What’s more, when we start to interrogate these legacy systems and mindsets, exciting opportunities begin to emerge.

Advertising is well overdue in shrugging off this dirty little habit. After all, the signs point to it ultimately benefiting both agencies and the clients they work with.


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