How women are portrayed in advertising

Can campaigns in the US and here change ideas about voiceovers and ads

Dove ads: dragged out every time someone wants to highlight the lack of “real women” in advertising

Dove ads: dragged out every time someone wants to highlight the lack of “real women” in advertising


Those women in the Dove ads must be getting exhausted - what with being dragged out every time someone wants to highlight the lack of “real women” in advertising. They are apparently the shining examples of realness but in truth there are plenty of individual examples of women that look and sound as “real” as the men in ads - but the bigger question surrounds broader issues of representation and how women are portrayed in advertising.

Why for example are the majority of voiceovers male? Why in financial services advertising is the advisor most likely to be a man? The same goes for a doctor, engineer or scientist but if there’s a teacher, that person is usually a woman, or why and this is just one example of many is the person in the shower washing their hair a young conventionally gorgeous woman?

Last week in the White House the US Association of National Advertising (ANA) represented by 50 of the top ad spending brands, committed to eliminating bias against women in advertising. The ANA wants a 20 per cent increase in the “accurate portrayal of all girls and women” in media by 2020 - the centenary year of when women got the vote in the US. “We know that the right advertising environment for women can improve ad effectiveness by as much as 30 per cent,” said Bob Liodice ANA chief executive in a statement. “So there is a business imperative to truthfully and accurately portray women and girls. More importantly, it’s the right thing to do.”

The #SeeHer campaign was launched at last Thursday’s event with a research monitoring programme - a Gender Equality Measure (GEM) that will track how advertisers are responding to the new brief. The initiative - and it’s White House link - came out of official concerns in the US about the under-representation of women in tech jobs in the media - the science technology, engineering and medicine (STEM) sectors. Seeing women in these roles provides role models for young girls.

Those campaigns that reflect the gender balance requirements in the #SeeHer campaign will be on its website from July for the public to view and as an ongoing best0-practice model for advertisers. Agencies will be encouraged by the ANA with the help of a checklist to ensure its advertising portrays women and girls in a non-sexist way and to attempt to cut through that great get-out clause “unconscious bias”.

Research in the US has shown that while female voiceovers in advertising are 3 per cent more effective than men, a massive two thirds of voiceovers are male. There are no figures for Irish voiceovers that I could find but going by the predominance of male voices on the airwaves as presenters it’s not unreasonable to guess it follows through during the ad breaks.

Part of the problem has to be the number of women in creative positions in advertising. In the US just 11 per cent of the staff working on the creative side are women. The situation is much better in Irish advertising agencies: the 2015 IAPI census found that women made up 26 per cent of the creative departments - and that’s a figure the industry is actively trying to improve on. The picture in the UK is much the same with the “This is adland 16” study by industry body IPA showing creative departments in the bigger agencies having “a significant male bias”.

Meanwhile in Britain the Advertising Standards Authority has announced it is to investigate “negative gender stereotyping” in advertising and is commissioning research into public opinion. In April the ASA chief executive Guy Parker said “We’ve already been taking action to ban ads that we believe reinforce gender stereotypes and are likely to cause serious and widespread offence or harm.

How the ASA judges offence will be watched closely. Last summer it said Protein World’s body shaming “beach body ready” poster campaign was “not offensive” even though the 380 complaints about it were further amplified by a social media backlash.

Meanwhile the empowering #likeagirl campaign from feminine hygiene brand Always was so extraordinarily brilliant that I doubt any of the 61 million people who viewed it on YouTube will ever use a phrase such as “throw like a like a girl” or “run like a girl” in a negative way again. Though curiously the two people who complained last year to the Irish Advertising Standard Authority about an ad for a Dublin gym that used the line “Stop training like your sister and do some real training” got short shrift. The watchdog said saying it did not consider the ad to be sexist.