Is Diversity a novelty in advertising?

March was Women’s History Month, and we saw a host of articles and stories celebrating the countless accomplishments of women throughout history (well, the clue is in the name). Of course the advertising business jumped in feet first and came up with all kinds of creative and clever ways to mark the occasion. Major brands like Brawny celebrated women in traditionally male roles while others swapped genders on their brand symbols. And there were the numerous blog posts that listed all the things that we need to keep in mind when creating marketing materials, not just during Women’s History Month, but in general across all of our work.

And as I watched television one evening, it struck me that despite all of the special women-as-role models ads running on TV and in print, the tendency is still to rely on gender stereotypes for everyday ads. If we’re selling soap, put a woman in the ad. If we’re selling tools, cast the man. And no amount of special, temporal gender-focused feel-good ads are going to change the pervasive and subliminal reinforcement of gender roles.

Quickly: cast in your mind the perfect character for your client’s laundry detergent. Attractive, suburban upper-middle-class 30-something mum with an active lifestyle living in a picture-perfect, idyllic suburban home. Was I close? What about the perfect cast for your client’s new flat-screen TV? Two twenty-something male friends playing a shoot-em-up video game? Or a group of male friends watching the big game? Even if we were to mix it up a little, it wouldn’t take long to notice who was holding the remote. In fact, about the only commercial I can think of that breaks this role-normative casting, outside of these temporary special-case short-run ads, is the “sexy koala” ad for GE washers. And even there, everything is idyllic and perfect, save for the gender swap of the concerned dad. And I think the only reason the man is doing the laundry is because the dynamic between the teenage daughter and dad just works better to draw out the humour of the situation. Somehow a pained expression of mum saying “Koala’s aren’t sexy!”, I don’t think, would elicit the same reaction.

Most ads cast women in traditional roles, as it does men. Whether its dishwashing detergent or tools, we can pretty much predict who our spokesperson will be. And I’m certainly not advocating that we go back to our clients and tell them that we need to do a gender-swap on everything we’re working on. That would, honestly, just create the same artificialness of the past month’s “special” ads.

Tide did a brilliant job to create the “not traditional laundry detergent ad” for the Superbowl. After all, the Superbowl is a time when advertisers should experiment and push boundaries. But again, it becomes a temporary event, and not tied to a fundamental shift in the way we think about the people we cast. And the whole reason for the ad was to not only shake up the laundry detergent commercial, but commercials in general.

We should continue to seriously consider the roles we’re promoting, however subtly, through the work we produce. This is especially important not just related to traditional gender roles, but when we consider that much of our audience might be single (and this doing everything themselves) or are in same-sex relationships. There is a change happening slowly. We are seeing more commercials feature both the man and woman participating in household duties. And more companies are also starting to show same-sex couples. So yes, there is a slow change occurring.

But we also need to keep in mind why we’re choosing the characters we’re casting. Why are we writing the scripts the way we are writing them? It’s understandable and easy to do it for special occasions, like commemorative months, or for siding with a movement in order to make political statements through heartfelt ads and hashtags. But that’s only going to reinforce the “uniqueness” and “specialness” of the situation. Why not shrug it off and reflect the reality we live in, rather than the reality we think others live in?

And finally, we need to consider that young people, AKA millennials, are in large numbers moving to live in urban areas as opposed to clamoring for the suburban life of their parents. That means laundry is done at the laundromat or in the closet of an impossibly tiny 3-story walk-up. And cooking – assuming they aren’t eating out – has to be accomplished in the apartment-equivalent of an Easy-Bake oven.

Diversity doesn’t just mean novelty ads that run for a short time. Diversity means rethinking the way that we, as advertising and marketing professionals, reflect the world around us.

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