Transforming the self is step one to changing advertising for the better
A view from Nicola Kemp

Transforming the self is step one to changing advertising for the better

There are few things more transformative than changing the way we view ourselves.

We all exist within the straitjacket of our own lens and society’s expectations, or lack thereof, of our own potential. Transformation may be at the top of the industry’s agenda, but the fact remains that much of its creative output remains wedded to outdated gender stereotypes, which serve to maintain a fundamentally limiting status quo.

Advertising is built upon consumer archetypes that have provided the framework for segmentation, planning and the creative work that flows from them for decades. 

In some companies, this target audience has a name. While in some briefs, they are reduced to a clutch of clichés – "tired, stressed-out mum" or the "busy executive". A shortcut, designed to connect with consumers, which has ended up short-changing them in myriad ways – not least by the palpable absence of people of colour or women in specific environments: boardrooms, sports fields etc. A silent message of exclusion.

The uncomfortable truth is that these stereotypes have been phenomenally successful. You don’t need to have the Fairy Liquid jingle etched into your soul to internalise the message that women are responsible for washing up. 

Indeed, such is the power of stereotyping that, according to one of Unilever’s agencies, when you show a man using cleaning products, the primary message consumers’ take away from the ad is that the product is easy to use. It is a state of play that has led the Advertising Standards Authority to introduce new guidelines on gender stereotyping. A move that, while roundly applauded, also sparked that well-worn question: "Doesn’t the industry have better things to do?" The kind of collective shrug of the shoulders that suggests that none of us possess any power to impact the world around us.

But if you believe that advertising shapes culture, that it has a role and a voice in society, then the answer to the above question is obvious. Change, both in the make-up of the industry and its creative output, is well overdue.

As the recent scandal over a Google employee’s anti-diversity memo underlined, it’s 2017 and asking the question "Is it true that there are biological reasons why there are fewer women in tech and leadership?" does not immediately mark you out as a lunatic.

Closer to home, Sir John Hegarty, co-founder of Bartle Bogle Hegarty, told Campaign in 2015: "There is no glass ceiling in our industry." According to Hegarty, the biggest problem is women taking career breaks to have children, then struggling to rejoin an industry that has moved on. In truth, while there are a number of campaigns that have successfully broken the mould, the day-to-day Hegarty describes remains steadfastly attached to the status quo.

It is difficult to believe that anyone wakes up in the morning aiming to create advertising to perpetuate inequality or diminish how individuals see themselves. Yet the fact that our innate bias is often unconscious does not collectively exclude us from its corrosive effects on society as a whole.

The creative industry has a unique ability not just to transform itself and its business structures but widen the lens through which consumers view themselves and their own expectations. As with all of the most fundamental transformations, it is one that starts from within.

Nicola Kemp is the trends editor at Campaign.