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Marketers clash with stereotyping police

The UK Advertising Standards Authority has had it with harmful stereotypes in advertising. Stereotyping represents a limited world view, especially for women and young girls. If you depict women obsessing over their kitchen counter, diapers and looks – instead of having them reverse-park – you’ve now got a fine coming your way.

Brevity favours stereotyping
It’s not that advertisers are coasting along as it is. In bygone days, they often used to get a full minute of the consumer’s time; now we should be thankful for 15 seconds, with digital natives starting to creak at the seams after as little as 6 seconds. If you want to communicate anything at all in this ultrashort contact moment, you have to resort to stereotypes. They’re quick and easy. It’s an evolutionary thing: assessing a situation in a split second increases your chances of survival. So creatives don’t want to generalise, they have to. That’s why Germans eat sausage, fat people are jolly and blondes are dumb. For an investment product, you use a smart man; for detergent tablets, a caring woman; and for rice, a vivacious Caribbean man. Brevity favours stereotyping.

Stereotypes aren’t the problem, it’s the marketer
Marketers are not blind to the fact that although clichés let them communicate fast, they come with the risk of promoting prejudices and judgements. If you keep on repeating historically engrained ideas, you’ll create a self-fulfilling prophecy. Consistently exposing people to the same ideas over a long period of time will create iron-cast convictions. Just ask Donald Trump, Nigel Farage or Santa Claus.

That’s why 90 per cent of marketers do feel that they’re hard at work avoiding stereotyping. The problem is that 75 per cent of consumers don’t notice this at all. A survey of Cannes Lions films showed that they feature 7x more speaking men than women, with men being shown 4x more, and preferably in a very intelligent way. New figures will be announced on the Croisette this week – but they won’t paint a different picture.

Drawing a hard line
If our Advertising Code Foundation follows the UK advertising watchdog’s hard line, things are about to get serious indeed. It’ll spell the end not only of stereotyping for women, but for men as well. It’s a good thing that we are no longer allowed to show them in Al Bundy mode, reclining on the couch in front of the TV, beer bottle in hand. But soon we won’t even be able to make fun of them by letting them do something feminine. Consider the McDonald’s ‘Men’s Burger’ campaign in which a man tries on garden boots for an eternity and asks his wife if he has a fat ass – that would be taboo now. Doesn’t that suck all the oxygen out of the stereotyping debate? And isn’t it the serious commercials for washing-up liquid and dust mops that uphold an outmoded view of women? In a policy statement about stereotyping, none other than the Anne Frank Foundation speaks out in favour of approaching such situations with a sense of humour. By turning stereotypes on their head, playing with them and thus weakening them in a playful way. It’s like aikido: bend a little and then strike.

Un-stereotyping starts with the CFO
It’s a good thing that the Representation Coalition – which unites parties like RTL, Vice, NPO, World Press Photo, YouTube, Coca-Cola and our own VEA – has proposed an integrated approach. But despite all the regulations and collaborations, what really works is to follow the money! Turn un-stereotyping into a business model. US DIY store Home Depot got to work on their female target group and multiplied their sales. If you want to make great strides, you’ll show that stereotyping not only wrongs women but, first and foremost, the CFO as well.

Dick van der Lecq

Dick van der Lecq is the Managing Director at DDB Unlimited. He was previously the Managing Partner at Etcetera.