On the Campaign couch: Does advertising create stereotypes?
A view from Jeremy Bullmore

On the Campaign couch: Does advertising create stereotypes?

Do you think advertising ever creates stereotypes or does it just parrot ones that already exist?

Stereotypes are self-created entities but their existence remains hidden from sight until some shrewd social observer first identifies them and then christens them. There were Sloane Rangers long before Ann Barr and Peter York immortalised them. Victoria Mather and Sue Macartney-Snape have brilliantly immortalised hundreds of others – but they didn’t create them. Advertising has never created a single stereotype but certainly finds them very useful.

Advertising – particularly television advertising – has to deal in shorthand and shortcuts. We may be criticised for opening on a shot of the Eiffel Tower – and, indeed, it’s extremely unimaginative. But how else can the first half-second of priceless screen time establish that we’re in Paris? 

Plays and films – and particularly novels – have space enough to introduce us to the complexities and idiosyncrasies of an individual: someone unlike anyone else in the world. But in advertising, all featured characters (unless they’re celebrities) are there to represent not themselves but a group of some sort: in effect, a stereotype. 

We use stereotypes in exactly the same way that we use the Eiffel Tower: it’s not original, it’s not subtle – but it’s extremely efficient. Much though we might like the mother putting the birthday cake on the table to be known as a much-loved hospital visitor, there’s never enough time. 

I love my job but it is becoming increasingly difficult to do it well because my company lacks strategic direction. It is trying to be all things to all people. Should I leave?
It’s not clear from your question whether your company is a client company or an advertising agency. It makes an important difference.

The potential market for a mass-market consumer brand amounts to many millions of people – and marketing directors, incentivised by KPIs that demand unachievable and unsustainable perpetual growth, accept annual sales and profit targets that just about everybody knows to be absurd. They just don’t say so out loud, that’s all, because to do so would be unmanly. So they pretend they can go on gaining market share until they’ve got all 60 million of them; which, in turn, leads to marketing objectives such as: "To substantially increase our share of the 18-24 demographic whilst taking care not to alienate existing users." 

And it’s that "whilst" (it’s never "while", have you noticed?) that’s the principle cause of marketing timidity. The thought that their precious marketing budget could be spent in a way that might actually prompt large numbers of their long-time loyalists to become apostates is enough to give marketing directors a severe case of the frights. Playing it safe, they will insist on striking out any element of any communication that could conceivably be argued to offend a single consumer. And so, by trying to be all things to all people, they succeed only in being nothing much to anyone. And this at a time when there’s more evidence than ever that what huge numbers of people appreciate, in products as in politicians, is an uncompromising and distinctive take on the world.

So if you work for a client company, and you recognise your company in my description above, you should certainly think seriously about moving on. To stay where you are will continue to be a drab experience, characterised by caution and serial disappointment. 

But if you work for an advertising agency, it’s an altogether different matter. If a consumer brand has a potential market of many millions of people, an advertising agency has a potential market of a few thousand. And each of these clients, each of these brands, demands a distinctive position and a distinctive face. That’s why the very best advertising agencies don’t have a recognisable house style. They’re skilful enough to be able to create the perfect, inimitable face for everything from Paddy Power to Paul Smith. Their work has only two things in common: no two pieces of their work seem to come from the same source; and they all more than pay their way. It’s fearsomely difficult to do – but it’s a noble objective. 

If your agency is determined to be able to be all things to all people, you should be proud and challenged to be part of it: so hang on in here. Just don’t confuse it with trying to be the same thing to all people.

Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via campaign@haymarket.com or Campaign, Teddington Studios, Broom Road, Teddington, TW11 9BE