Stereotypes in Storytelling – considerations and provocations

Stanley St’s Dan West and FCB’s Sue Kipling share their thoughts on stereotypes in storytelling, supported by research agency PureProfile.

Stereotypes inherently exist as quick shortcuts – we use the way a person looks, the role that they play or their “functional” aspects to create a backstory that sets up a character and context quickly. And nowadays when you often only have 15 seconds, or as little as 6 seconds, to get a message across they have their appeal. But are stereotypes really as effective as we think they are? Or do they not only limit our advertising return on investment but also our potential as human beings? We ran a first of its kind study in New Zealand to find out.

We are exposed to 5000 ads every day[1]. Therefore advertising, whether we like it or not, influences culture and shapes the world we live in. The Geena Davis Institute on gender in media said, “representation in advertising is especially influential in shaping societal values, given the sheer volume of ads we are exposed to each day.” So how representative are we in New Zealand? As the country proud to be the first to give women the vote, surely we are at the forefront of advertising equality?

We ran a first of its kind study in New Zealand with PureProfile and a cohort of 308 men and women across New Zealand to find out.

Sue Kipling

As it turns out our natural biases around gender roles align closely with the rest of the world. Even more concerning, between 1983 and 2014, beliefs about male gender roles in particular – such as “men repair and maintain the car” – remained about the same, but there was actually an increase in female gender role stereotyping, like the belief that women are more likely to tend to the house and take care of the kids.

Dan West

So, should advertising mirror society or shape it?

If we take a societal lense on this question, empirical evidence – as outlined in “looking glass or molder of the masses” by Prof Geoffrey P Lantos – would suggest that advertising can reinforce and hasten the pace of social change[2]. When we have negative portrayals of women in advertising, it has found to have:

●  Cognitive and emotional consequences

●  Mental and physical health issues

●  Issues surrounding sexuality

●  Attitudes and beliefs

●  Impact on society as a whole

On the flipside, positive portrayals of women in advertising have helped women to feel empowered and assertive to apply for jobs, start businesses and even leave abusive relationships[3]. And our effects spill into the next generation. Girls as young as seven-years-old are unable to see themselves as surgeons, fighter pilots and firefighters, whilst boys don’t see themselves as nurses and teachers.

Here’s the uncomfortable truth; like it or not, we are shaping it, with every message we put out there. So, the more important question we should be asking ourselves is: what are we shaping it into?

So, what’s the situation in New Zealand?

Based on our own perceptions of New Zealand we thought we would do well. However, the results of our study with PureProfile surprised us:

●  Only 21% of NZ women feel advertising represents their experience as a woman in a modern world.

●  Over 1/3 of New Zealanders (36%), and this is men and women, often get exposed to stereotypically sexist ads that irritate them.

●  2/3 of New Zealanders (65%) believe advertising sets unrealistic expectations and puts pressure on women and girls.

●  Only 12% of New Zealanders feel that advertisers really understand them. This decreases to 10% for women only.

In advertising today, New Zealanders believe men are more commonly portrayed as…

●  Funny: 39% agree vs 19% who disagree

●  Intelligent: 27% agree vs 33% who disagree

●  Leaders: 46% agree vs 22% who disagree

●  Employed: 54% agree vs 14% who disagree

This is actually ‘worse’ in some cases than the same study run in 2019 for global ads shown at the Cannes Advertising Festival. For instance, to the question whether ‘men are more commonly portrayed as funny’, the split is 22.1% agree vs 15.4% who disagree.

This balance needs readdressing.

But here’s the clincher, this isn’t just the right thing to do… it’s the smart thing.

Locally, one third of New Zealanders seek out products or services from companies that promote gender equality in their advertising. And more than half of Kiwis (65%) feel more positive towards companies that demonstrate in their advertising that men and women have the same capability and roles. Yes, price and convenience are still king, but this is an opportunity to truly differentiate.

Research by Kantar and UM shows that positive portrayals of women in advertising improve brand sentiment[4]. And drives core metrics of:

●  Purchase Consideration: 3.3x uplift

●  Ad Likeability: 2.7x uplift

●  Brand Opinion: 1.3x uplift

Research by SEEHER showed that ads and programming that realistically portray women and girls achieve, on average, a 30% increase in ROI[5]. In campaigns that accurately portray women and girls, brands will see 2x to 5x incremental sales uplift[6].

And this isn’t exclusive to offline advertising. Facebook found that online campaigns with more diverse representation tend to have higher ad recall compared with campaigns featuring a single traditional representation. In over 90% of the simulations done by Facebook, diverse representation was the winning strategy for ad recall lift.[7]

So how do we improve the situation?

To make things easy we have provided you with a ‘three Ps’ framework which we hope will help you when creating ideas and advertising that works in a modern world.

●  Portrayal: How women are being portrayed in the ad; not just about “having women” in the ad or tokenistic gestures.

●  Perspective: Seeing the world through a woman’s eyes…in order to connect with lived experiences.

●  Presence: Maintaining integrity throughout the creation of the story telling. It’s not just about insight in the first instance and then handing that story over…but ensuring that women are present throughout the journey. This is not a tick box exercise.

Here is an easy checklist to take away for each of the Ps:


●  Are the males / females in the ad portrayed as good role models vs perpetuating gender stereotypes?

●  Does the narrative give the viewer an insight into a female perspective or world view?


●  Is the character interesting in their own right, not just because they are a woman/man?

●  Are the characters being portrayed in stereotypical roles, situations, or circumstances?


●  Are women an empowered part of the journey in the development and execution of this narrative?

[1] Source: Yankelovich, a market research firm, 2007

[2] Source: https://www.apa.org/pi/women/programs/girls/report

[3] Source: https://medium.com/@moonstorming/how-advertising-has-become-an-agent-of-social-change-148aa0ef303a

[4] Source: UM testing across Kantar’s database on the technology vertical

[5] Source: Unilever study

[6] Source: Accurate Portrayals of Women and Girls in Media: Proven to be Good for Business, SEEHER, April 2020

[7] Source: https://www.facebook.com/business/news/insights/the-difference-diversity-makes-in-online-advertising

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