The backlash to the government’s latest ad campaign is a timely reminder of why tackling sexist, toxic stereotypes needs to be at the top of the advertising agenda.
Stay Home. Save Lives. Protect the NHS. Sidenote: if you happen to be a woman you must do all this, whilst submitting yourself entirely to outdated stereotypes that belong firmly in the 1950s.
This was the message sanctioned by the government via a social media post. One that celebrates gender inequality and invisible and unpaid labour by depicting women completing domestic tasks, cleaning and homeschooling, while the only man present is inexplicably lying on a couch relaxing.
The backlash to the advert (which was not created by MullenLowe London, but as Campaign revealed linked to digital agency Topham Guerin) was both swift and inevitable.
Women across the industry, jaded by homeschooling, too much time staring at our own faces on Zoom, would be forgiven for collectively asking the government: “You ok hun?”
The advert, which is clearly not okay on any level, was originally posted on the government’s Facebook page and then swiftly deleted – but not before it had been screenshotted and shared across the globe.
The prime minister’s spokesman subsequently released a statement saying that “[the ad] does not reflect our view on women”. Posing the question, what does it reflect then? Not just for the government, but for the industry at large.
Advertising as gaslighting
Stereotypes matter because they stop people from reaching their potential, they stunt opportunity and suffocate the pathways to growth and self-realisation. They cause real-world harm that some in the industry are still guilty of rolling their collective eyes at.
Stereotypes are where creativity goes to die. They are a pivotal part of the broader malaise in advertising when it comes to gender stereotyping. Three years ago, research from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media showed that women are almost half as more likely (48%) than men to be depicted in the kitchen in advertising.
The good news is that the government campaign would likely fall foul of the ASA’s guidelines on gender stereotyping, which came into force in June 2019, providing a progressive roadmap to creating more inclusive creative work (which nonetheless was subject to a backlash from some sections of the industry).
A backlash which underlines a fundamental truth – one it is vital for the industry to recognise. It’s 2021 and we are inexplicably still explaining why stereotypes matter. If we don’t depict half the world as anything other than a one-dimensional stereotype, how can we possibly build an inclusive, innovative industry?
Day in day out, women across the industry do not see themselves properly represented.
Whether in a government advert, within awards juries and shortlists. creative departments, juries or conference panels. A causal exclusion which leads so many to still be asking: "Is this industry for me?"
It’s a question that the industry must answer as a matter of urgency to prevent sleepwalking into the biggest threat to gender equality in a generation.
With a myriad of data points underlining the ways in which women have been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus crisis the industry needs to take action to create the kind of inclusive, diverse environments in which this kind of work simply doesn't make it out the door.
Yet even prior to the coronavirus crisis, data from LinkedIn showed just 19% of the UK’s creative directors are women, with Creative Equals estimating that 1-2% are black, Asian or multi-ethnic women.
We can’t afford to simply dismiss this work as little more than a reflection of a sexist government, when women are not properly represented in creative leadership. It stands to reason that they won’t be properly represented in the work.
It’s an action gap which is particularly acute when it comes to the depiction of motherhood in advertising.
Long prior to the pandemic, women in the creative industries were paying the motherhood penalty. From job offers being retracted on the basis of asking to leave the office at 5pm three times a week, to being managed out during maternity leave, it has long been clear that mothers in the creative industries deserve better.
When you consider the importance of mothers as a consumer group, is it any wonder that the depiction of mothers in advertising is still something of a creative black hole?
A lack of realism underlined by the government’s campaign suggesting home-schooling extends to teaching our daughters how to clean.
With no one appearing to be crying, failing at multi-tasking or sneaking off to play Fortnite, I can only conclude that the creative team behind the ad have never actually attempted the impossible task of home-schooling whilst simultaneously trying to work.
For authenticity, I’m tempted to add here how many times I have been interrupted whilst attempting to write this.
Nothing about us without us
Of course, one social post is not going to incorporate every experience. But as anti-poverty campaigner and food writer Jack Monroe says so powerfully: “Nothing about us without us.”
In the face of this yawning gap between words and actions, women and allies across the industry continue to show up for themselves and each other.
Within a matter of hours of the government campaign being shared on social media, designer Kim French, head of marketing at branded content group Preen and head of brand and content at women’s network Bloom, produced an inclusive alternative.
Every day across our industry women are showing up and speaking out. The writer and activist Soraya Chemaly writes that “the anger we have as women is an act of radical imagination”.
This kind of work has no place in our industry. So, regardless of your gender, get angry, make change, support and promote diverse talent. Prioritise flexible working and hiring and retaining diverse talent. Work towards goals that are based on taking meaningful action, rather than writing press releases.
For without this industry-wide change, we can expect to see more of this kind of work. Let's work to create the kind of industry where people no longer need to ask: “Is this industry for me?”
An industry that fuels the kind of work that shifts culture and makes the hairs on the back of your neck prick up for the right reasons.
Nicola Kemp is editorial director of Creativebrief