Humans first, females second: why the conversation around gender stereotypes in advertising needs to change

I’m sick of the conversation about the portrayal of women in advertising. I’m tired of hearing how patronising and demoralising our depictions of women are, from the household drudge to the sexpot to the power dresser. Not because I’m trying to dodge the finger pointing at an industry that’s the poster boy of sexual objectivism and outdated stereotyping. But because it’s completely academic.

At its heart advertising is about persuasion. It’s about making people do, believe and feel something about brands. The real issue isn’t whether or not you’ve alienated your target with trivial and belittling images idealising women. It’s that your efforts have gone un-noticed. All you’ve done is create bland, cliché-ridden, unimaginative, humourless wallpaper unworthy of people’s precious attention.

We need to change the conversation and look at it from a different angle. Because as soon as the word ‘woman’ enters the boardroom, it’s as if we turn into trembling idiots without an instinctive, interesting or creative bone in our bodies. 

One of my favourite ads from recent years was part of Nike’s campaign designed to ride on the tails of the London Olympics, given it wasn’t an official sponsor. ‘Find Your Greatness’ heroed the athletic greatness taking place in less glamorous Londons—those in Ohio, Canada, Jamaica, Nigeria and Norway—to inspire regular Joes and Janes to find their own greatness.

The ad in particular was of a fat kid running along an empty country road at the break of dawn. There was nothing super human about it. It was everything that average looks like. A kid that’s five foot three and 200 pounds, trying to get in shape. Not for the games of 2024, but just for himself. So what was it about this ad that worked where so many trying to woo me as a woman have failed?

Firstly, that it didn’t try. It didn’t show me who I should be. It didn’t pretend that it would change me. It didn’t pigeonhole me or make me feel bad for not fitting it.

But it did entertain, engage and provoke me to believe what Nike believes. Using a fat kid to sell shoes feels counterintuitive. It’s controversial. It’s gruelling and uncomfortable to watch. But it’s this that piqued my curiosity and gave me goose bumps. 

Most importantly it treated me like everyone else. Both men and women can relate to this kid. None of us are going to the games, but that doesn’t mean our greatness isn’t any less important.

As Chris Kramarae, the author of The Feminist Dictionary says: “Feminism is the radical notion that women are human beings.” Radical indeed! Treating women as normal people, who would have thought? 

The best brands and most-loved ads by women have cracked the code. They get that we’re humans first and females second. By looking at advertising through this lens we have a greater shot of creating breakthrough work that speaks to true human needs and realistic aspirations of women.

Now that’s something I can buy, the real truth about women.

  • Lucinda Sherborne is planning director at DDB NZ. 
  • This story appeared in the Jan/Feb edition of NZ Marketing and originally appeared on the Westpac blog as part of Westpac & Fairfax Media’s Women of Influence awards. 

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