Don't replace old stereotypes with new ones
A view from Karen Martin

Don't replace old stereotypes with new ones

Adland tends to go to extremes to get messages across as quickly and simply as possible.

Spots, hormones, parents, peer groups – being a teenager has never been easy. But how any teen can cope in our social media-driven world is beyond me.

Spending too much time on social media has been linked to a rise in teenage depression because of the continual focus on the "perfect lives" of people with wealthier lifestyles, according to new research. Another study by Bupa shows that one in 10 people in Britain have felt unhappy about an event or significant moment in their lives as a direct result of social media. 

There’s nothing like having to compare your life with a more Instagram-friendly version to bring you down. Brands that align themselves with the world’s biggest influencers need to be aware of the negative impact these "idyllic" lifestyles can have on the rest of us. Aspiring to all that filtered fakery is never going to be a path to contentment. 

Outside the world of social media, advertising is trying to stop overtly peddling the stereotypically "perfect" life. Imagery left over from the Mad Men era of the pipe-smoking dad, happy housewife and nuclear family is slowly getting replaced with a slightly more egalitarian, grittier and inclusive version of life as advertising knows it. The industry is getting a bit better at representing different people, communities and families of various compositions, although there is still a long way to go.

The stereotypes still exist, however. The ad community often disregards subtlety, nuance and the everyday reality of our lives in favour of something more extreme or dramatic. Teens in ads are portrayed as moody bastards who are glued to their phones. Women with normal body types are depicted as so defiantly proud of their bodies that they never bother to wear clothes. It’s great to celebrate the beauty of women of different shapes and sizes, but you don’t need to be stark naked all the time to have body confidence. 

Adland tends to go to extremes to get messages across as quickly and simply as possible. These extremes can be necessary when it comes to changing perceptions and behaviour or confronting a taboo. We shouldn’t forget, of course, that this industry has helped to create many of the taboos it is now trying to confront. Just look at the evolution of the tampon ad. We’ve gone from showing women paragliding in spotless white jeans to a veritable blood bath. Extremes work wonderfully for certain brands and issues, such as the politics around periods. But to show off their newfound wokeness, brands don’t always need to go for spit-out-your-chips shock value.

Going for the extreme approach every time can risk making what you’re saying seem as inauthentic as the sterile imagery that advertising produced in the 1950s and 1960s. What is the real motivation behind what you are doing? Where is the nuance? Let’s lighten up a little and show people as individuals with everyday or not-so-dramatic stories. Instead of using extreme messaging about one particular issue or aspect of life, put what you’re saying into a wider context so that all types of people can relate to it. Resist always going for shock value or replacing old stereotypes with new ones. And, importantly, take responsibility for how the Insta-glam lifestyles you endorse might impact the mental health of your audience. Perhaps then advertising will start imitating life. 

Karen Martin is managing director at Bartle Bogle Hegarty London

Picture: AMC