Our brains are open to all kinds of gender representations - as long as they're believable
A view from Heather Andrew

Our brains are open to all kinds of gender representations - as long as they're believable

Research shows audiences are actually far more enlightened and perceptive than they're given credit for, reveals the UK chief executive of Neuro-Insight.

Despite ever-increasing pressure from some brands, agencies and audiences, diversity and equal representation in advertising remains a tough a nut to be cracked. With new rules and regulations coming to the fore this year, advertisers will be forced to think more creatively about the way they depict gender and construct meaningful narratives around it.

To date, brands have often been guilty of approaching diversity with too much caution; appearing scared of causing offence by getting it wrong, or feeling limited by the assumption that their audience is inherently narrow-minded. Although, on the surface, it can seem difficult to please everyone, studying an audience’s subconscious responses often reveals that people are actually far more enlightened and perceptive than they’re given credit for; open to all kinds of representations when it comes to gender, as long as they seem believable.

The subconscious responses revealed that the brain is in fact very open to both traditional and non-traditional gender portrayals, but under the caveat that the context within which these gender portrayals appear must be credible

Recent research conducted by neuroscience market research company Neuro-Insight analysed the different patterns of brain response in audiences watching three adverts; two that were highly stereotypical and one that attempted to push the boundaries of feminine representation by placing females in a traditionally masculine environment – the football pitch.

The subconscious responses revealed that the brain is in fact very open to both traditional and non-traditional gender portrayals, but under the caveat that the context within which these gender portrayals appear must be credible. 

Avon’s "Fiercely feminine" campaign for example, features female footballers and the asks "who says women can’t be fierce and feminine?" Looking at patterns of brain response, this strapline elicited a very strong rise in positive approach and memory encoding, suggesting that audiences very much like the idea of female empowerment. But many of the visuals of women actually playing football appeared less interesting and less relevant to the audience, leading to fluctuating patterns of engagement, and a key factor in this was the prominence of the make-up that the women were wearing. Viewers identified less strongly when they saw the female footballers wearing prominent make-up – the brain was skeptical of the attempt made to link female empowerment with both football and cosmetics. 

This correlates with earlier research conducted on a campaign for washing detergent which used a male figure instead of a female as the primary care-taker of the washing. The visuals elicited both a good memory response and a good emotional reaction, but engagement and personal relevance trended down throughout the ad. This suggested that although the audience quite liked the message and the alternate gender role depiction, they couldn’t quite relate to it – or really believe it.

Who says women can’t be fierce and feminine? #FiercelyFeminine

Campaigns that depict men and women in traditional roles often work well for the brain. A campaign from Aptamil for their follow-on milk product, for example, attracted much criticism from gender campaigners who disapproved of the depiction of a baby girl growing up to become a ballerina whilst her male counterpart was shown to be destined for a future as a mathematician or mountaineer. From the research, we could see that the brain responded positively to these depictions, with levels of both engagement and memory encoding remaining high. They may have been stereotypes, but they were believable and appealing ones. 

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So there is no clear right or wrong. In terms of effectiveness, stereotypes can work and, conversely, more non-conformist depictions don’t necessarily equate to a greater impact. What matters is getting a context that is meaningful and believable.

Great pieces of communication offer a heady mix of intrigue and emotional intensity, which we can see is affected by the credibility of the context.  Ads that have tackled diversity and stereotyping well in the past have leveraged all three key drivers of memory: narrative, emotion and personal relevance. Where levels of personal relevance are high, there is an indication that the ad has achieved what it set out to do – prompted people to relate to, and empathise with, the characters involved, no longer viewing them or the situation as ‘different’.

The imperative to represent more diversity in advertising is clear, and it’s an achievable goal, but advertisers stand the best chance of reaching that goal by setting up their story and cast to be relatable, and therefore memorable for the right reasons. 


Heather Andrew, is the UK chief executive of Neuro-Insight