Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Are sexist ads a thing of the past? Experts believe there’s still a long way to go

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When Camey O’Keefe landed her first job as a creative in advertising almost 25 years ago, the casting brief called for “a blonde with biggies”.

“I kid you not. That was the wording, verbatim,” she says.

“This was also the mentality of many of the men in charge – bosses were predominantly men back then – when it came to female representation.”

“It was, at times, sexist and demeaning.”

With over two decades of experience in advertising and marketing, fellow panellist on ABC’s Gruen, Emily Taylor has a similar story to tell.

“Once upon a time women were only cast in supporting roles or, if the lead role, only as one-dimensional hygiene-obsessed Stepford Wives in household cleaning ads,” she says.

So have advertisements changed the way they portray women? And if they have, has it been for the better?

Diversity, representation improving

In the decades since her first brief, Camey is pleased to see most ads have improved.

“We’ve absolutely made progress in how women are represented throughout ad campaigns,” she says.

“[It’s] far from perfect for sure, but I can say with confidence you would never receive an overtly sexist brief like that anymore.”

Karen Ferry, another regular on Gruen with extensive experience as an advertising creative, points out that diversity in ads has also improved over her almost two decades in the advertising business.

Karen Ferry is another regular on Gruen.(Supplied: Cassandra Hannagan)

“Right now, we are seeing a more diverse representation of women in casting in age, appearance and cultural background,” she says.

Emily’s expectations when it comes to ads today are much simpler. 

“[You] can’t really pinpoint the moment it felt better, but the fact I am no longer offended on a daily basis is an excellent sign!” she says.

Who is doing the housework in our ads?

With overtly sexist casting gradually becoming a thing of the past, progress can be seen in the way advertising now tackles household chores.

“Brands are making moves to depict more balanced gender roles in their advertising, knowing that the tired tropes of mum in the kitchen [and] dad in the shed just won’t cut it these days,” Camey says.

“You can see this in all the little executional choices being made, down to male hands loading the dishwasher.

“[They’re] small but important details that get considered when making an ad to make sure a brand meets community expectations.”

a man in a laundry sits beside a laundry basket full of dirty clothes and smiles up at a little girl holding a dress

Hygiene-obsessed women are no longer the norm in laundry ads.

More recently, the car industry has recognised women as major purchasers and decision-makers when it comes to buying cars.

“Most brands have shifted to represent women more accurately,” Emily says.

“Showing that women don’t only do school drop-offs, [but] also like a car with a bit of zoom and are also content behind the wheel of a 4×4.”

But it’s ads for feminine hygiene products – remember the blue dye? – that have seen the biggest change. 

Tackling taboos

Karen believes advertising for menstrual products, such as this one from Sweden’s Essity, is often the only time we see a wider portrayal of how women live, feel and experience life.

“It seems that only when it deals with the parts of being a woman that men don’t want to be involved in can we talk about the female experience,” she says.

Yet these ads also haven’t been without their critics. 

In 2019, Asaleo Care’s advertisement for Libra period pads was the first to show blood in a feminine hygiene ad.

Ad Standards, which handles complaints against the advertising industry, went on to receive more than 600 objections about it.

The following year, a Frida Mom ad for a postpartum product was rejected by the ABC network in the US for being too graphic to screen during the Academy Awards.


Room for more progress

Emily, Karen and Camey all agree that despite the progress that’s been made, women still often play the supporting role.

“[Women] are a mother, a daughter, a wife, a girlfriend, an employee – and that role is often played in the universe of a man,” Karen says.

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