Back in 2013, Canadian Custom Solutions carried out a survey in the UK that showed that more than half of women surveyed saw gender-specific ads as outdated. Also around that time, ads that challenged gender stereotypes started to go viral. Something was changing, not just in culture but in advertising content too.
In 2015 in the Philippines, Pantene aired an ad one minute long that portrayed women in the office alongside their male counterparts; while the man in the boardroom was called the "boss", the woman was labelled "bossy". A sartorially elegant man was "smooth", while a similarly stylish woman was called a "show-off".
Over the next four years we would see research studies, advertising and communications policy initiatives try to take on the emerging landscape on gender. Retailers such as Gap would come under attack for suggesting that while boys dream of a future as an Einstein-like scholar, girls can look forward to life as a social butterfly. And retail experiments in progressive department stores started to blur the distinctions between men’s and women’s forms and silhouettes and, therefore, clothing.
But it didn’t go that much further.
Designer Faye Toogood’s experiments in creating gender-neutral shopping environment in Selfridges could have led to more sweeping changes in retail, to a radically altered retail landscape in which the old notions of gender, and gender roles and fashion, would become replaced by something more individual, personal and less stereotypical.
Culture is often slow to change, especially when social norms are so deeply embedded into the fabric of our everyday existence. And it will take probably another generation for this kind of change to become mainstream.
It is true that today’s younger generations say that their identity is less defined by gender. Of the 14- to 34-year-olds surveyed in the Cassandra Gender Report, 60% said that the lines of gender have been blurred, and that men and women no longer need to conform to traditional roles and behaviour.
Interestingly, in the same report, fewer than half of the men surveyed reported a preference for male-specific products and only a quarter deemed the portrayal of their gender in advertising to be accurate.
So while some commentary on the Advertising Standards Authority’s gender stereotyping initiative spoke of political correctness, the overwhelming reaction I heard, especially from younger age groups, was "Hallelujah, it’s the right thing to do – and it’s the right time."
The ASA’s report findings show that gender stereotyping can cause harm for anyone if communications invite assumptions about the limitations or restrictions that should be put on a person because of their gender.
Ironically, greeted with the ASA’s evidence that ads that feature stereotypical gender roles, or characteristics which through their content or context could be harmful, some of the media chose to wheel out Nanette Newman, she of Fairy Liquid fame. I have no problem with that, as long as we are also hearing from people of a younger generation alongside her – Karlie Kloss perhaps?
We cannot judge today’s advertising landscape by the values of the 1970s or 1980s. I wonder what Nanette Newman’s views on coding or social media currencies or virtual reality might be? The interviewers should have asked her that too if she was meant to be there as a media expert, or an advertising celebrity.
Why? Because these are all ways in which technology has disrupted, evolved and democratised advertising and media. Tech has helped disrupt, evolve and democratise our values too, and so it makes sense to me that an evolved media landscape should reflect evolved and evolving values, including those around gender.
There will come a point, possibly in 20 years time when we look back at some of the advertising, communications, press and TV content and say "That’s so old-fashioned and out of step." Who these days would watch a black-and-white minstrel show? Does Robertson’s jam still promote Golly collectables today? No, it doesn’t. Because attitudes change and new values emerge – around race, religion, gender and, perhaps one day, age. And aren’t we all the better for it?
Tracey Follows is founder of Futuremade and FemaleFuturesBureau and sits on the Advertising Standards Authority Council