Gray Matters: stereotypes, pitching and streaming ads

Acting stereotypes

 The ACT party re-launched at the weekend with the slogan ‘act for freedom’ with a promise to push for free speech. With free speech being under assault in New Zealand after the Christchurch shootings and a more generalized assault on the freedom of expression in other Western democracies, it is interesting to see how this cultural shift might impact on advertising and marketing.

As of this month, ”men unable to change diapers; women cleaning while men kick their feet up on the couch; women having trouble with parking, and other scenes like these, which play on gender stereotypes, are now banned in British advertisements,” quotes The New York Times. “Depictions of girls as less academic than boys, men being belittled for “unmanly” behavior, and an array of other cliched portrayals have been consigned to history in British commercials as new rules come into effect banning gender stereotypes in advertising,” writes CNN.

“A ban on adverts featuring “harmful gender stereotypes” or those which are likely to cause ‘serious or widespread offence’ has come into force,” is the way the BBC portrays the newly instituted ban.

New Zealand’s local code for people in advertising states: “Stereotypes may be used to simplify the process of communication in relation to both the product offered and the intended consumer. However, advertisements should not use stereotypes in the portrayal of the role, character and behaviour of groups of people in society which, taking into account generally prevailing community standards, is reasonably likely to cause serious or widespread offence, hostility, contempt, abuse or ridicule.”

So, with the climate of tolerance shrinking, the question needs to be asked about the “prevailing community standards” and what exactly “is reasonably likely to cause serious or widespread offence, hostility, contempt, abuse or ridicule” for New Zealanders.

“Humorous and satirical treatment of people and groups of people is acceptable, provided that, taking into account generally prevailing community standards, the portrayal is not likely to cause serious or widespread offence, hostility, contempt, abuse or ridicule.”

Ask yourselves, would an ad showing a man unable to change diapers offend you? More to the point, where will our local ASA draw the line, and will that line be attacked by activists and the Twitter mob?

So far, we’ve been lucky. For example, an IAG TV ad for State Roadside Rescue showed a teenage girl staring into the open bonnet of a car with makeup running down her face, and a voiceover saying, “State’s Roadside Rescue covers your car for any driver – even your teenage daughter,” was not banned just because a complainant said the advertisement portrayed female drivers in a sexist and degrading way.

Nor was a complaint regarding a Coruba billboard, concerned the wording in the advertisement “wi bizzy chillin” was culturally degrading, deemed to be offensive.

Even an attractive girl positioned on a truck, with the caption: “Are you a Burgen Virgin?” advertising bread was not considered sexual by the ASA, even though it was by at least one complainant.

Up to this point, the advertising standards authority have appeared reasonable in their judgements but are we entering an over-reactive climate where government pressure on the back of hate speech laws might well push the ASA to be more circumspect?

Without wanting to make “slippery slopes” or “thin end of the wedge” arguments, it might be time for an early warning for advertisers. Prevailing community standards are changing fast.

A guide to progressive gender portrayals in advertising — the case for unstereotyping ads, is a guide put out by the World Federation of Advertisers. In its introduction, the advisory states: The Unstereotype Alliance recognises that advertisers and creatives have the power to influence culture and society in a positive way through how people are portrayed in advertising and marketing. The initiative was born from the belief that we need a new, unprecedented agenda for the industry that breaks down outdated and harmful stereotypes about men and women and helps to create a world with unlimited possibilities.”

“Our industry needs to be brave enough to depict society in a realistic way rather than reinforce potentially harmful stereotypes,” says WFA president David Wheldon.

That may be true, but already we are seeing the assault on comedy and humour has always been a strong component of creative advertising.

Writing in 2016, Julia Clavien wrote on Reflections On Stereotyping In The Modern World saying: “We don’t tend to condemn positive stereotypes in the same way we do the negative ones. We can’t have It both ways. If people/society (and especially our politicians) are going to moralise about stereotyping – at least they need to be consistent and make all types unacceptable. It’s ridiculously inconsistent to condemn stereotyping only when it is negative!”

Clavien continues: “If it isn’t acceptable to stereotype Asians as bad drivers, then it isn’t acceptable to stereotype Asians as being good at math. If it isn’t acceptable to stereotype women as irrational, then it isn’t acceptable to stereotype women as empathetic. If it isn’t acceptable to stereotype gay men as promiscuous, then it isn’t acceptable to stereotype gay men as having great style. etcetera ad nauseam.”

As she so succinctly puts it, “If you accept that stereotyping is a core part of how our brains work, then you might agree that cutting out stereotyping whether negative, positive or both types, is an impossible task.”

ACT’s attempt to reinvent the party by taking up the free speech baton may be seen by commentators as “rightwing populism and an anti-Establishment Zeitgeist” but advertising agencies and the marketing fraternity might recognise it is in their interest to guard against the impositions of the anti-free speech brigade.

Pitch Perfect

Like many in the industry, my inbox is flooded with emails from various purveyors of marketing and advertising advice. One such email landed this week with the line: “Pitching to clients without insights is like playing golf blindfolded.” Good line I thought, takes me back to my first days in advertising when I was told by my mentor, “winning a pitch starts with demonstrating you understand the client’s business, without that even the best creative will fall on deaf ears.”

“With data, agencies can remove their blindfolds and see the client’s challenges and opportunities with clarity,” went on the email from Sam Ernest-Jones from globalwebindex.com, whoever he may be.

While deciding whether to place this particular email in the spam folder, I recalled a Campaign article last year calling for an evolution in pitching. “The pitch is dead, long live the pitch!” has been a frequent refrain in adland, with prophecies of its demise typically getting louder.”

The Campaign article went on to say according to research commissioned by Creativebrief, 61 percent of brands and 93 percent of agencies want to see change in the pitch process, with 82 percent of agencies agreeing that they should be prepared to refuse to pitch for an account in order to instigate this change.

Those agencies interviewed by Campaign tended to agree that “good pitch practice frequently hinges on good leadership from the chief marketer”. There is definitely an appetite to ditch the traditional pitch format in favour of something more informal that may better suit a brand’s needs.

Despite this, many marketers in New Zealand see the pitch as not only the best way of appointing an advertising agency but also, in review, forcing the incumbent to pitch against other contenders, even when the brand owner has no intention of switching. It’s the equivalent of using spurs and a whip in a horse race – gets the horse/agency to run faster.

There’s an old adage that accounts are won on creative and lost through poor client service. So, understanding the client’s business and bringing new insights to the table is the key to retaining the business as well as bringing in new business.

“New truths can be easily extracted from deep consumer data and compared against the client’s existing profiles,” says Ernest-Jones earnestly! “When presented effectively, the right audience segmentation signals your agency’s access to insider knowledge, while showcasing the client’s shortfalls and opportunities in the process. Establish yourself as the go-to source for consumer insight, you can further cement your authoritative position by indicating your ability to propel the clients existing processes forward.”

Good advice. Perhaps I won’t send the email to the spam folder.

Swimming upstream

On the same day the Wall Street Journal wrote: “Streaming platforms allow companies to tailor their marketing to a bigger audience and with more precision,” Spotify announced that “advertisers can now target ads based on the podcasts that people listen to”. The new opportunity allows advertisers to target listeners based on the category of podcast they consume. In a statement to The Verge, a Spotify spokeswoman explained that the company wants to keep building out advertising around podcasts.

However, annoying you might find the same ad repeated over and over again on TVNZ OnDemand, ad-supported streaming services are becoming more popular with advertisers. In this environment, Netflix and Amazon Prime could be next to adopt an ad-targeting model.

As Nicole Martin writes in Forbes: “Subscription services currently dominate the market due to their binge-watching capabilities with no ads. However, with growing competition in video streaming services, Netflix and Amazon could now reconsider their promise of no advertisements on their service.”

Interestingly, according to a survey, 23 percent of Netflix subscribers said they would drop the service if they started running ads. As reported in Variety, the Hub survey found “another 37 percent said they were undecided about what they would do if Netflix started running commercials, while 27 percent said they would “probably” keep it. Just 14 percent said they would “definitely” retain their subscription with ads running in Netflix.”

Whatever the outcome, advertisers are going to be offered better, more-targeted opportunities to reach consumers on their chosen channels and in the context of the genres they prefer. But one has to ask, “are New Zealand media agencies too parochial in their recommendations and are these new opportunities missing from too many recommendations?”


“Sponsorship doesn’t mean you share values with talent. It says you wish to share your values with that talent’s audience. Carried to the extreme, identical values as a prerequisite for sponsorship means corporations dictate where free speech is acceptable and where it is not.” – Dan Granger, CEO and founder of Oxford Road.

About Author

Graham Medcalf is a freelance writer and owner of Red Advertising.

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