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Stereotyping Women for Dummies 101

by Madwoman on June 10, 2013

We all use and rely on and are influenced by stereotypes in our daily lives. They help simplify things.

Politicians use them all the time to either glorify friends or demonise foes.  Good/bad, black/white. People like simplicity not grey.

Stereotypes are naturally pervasive in advertising, where you have only a few seconds to set a message in context, create a clear impression.

Used well, they create recognition and empathy. Used badly, they will be rejected or worse, cause outrage.

Sadly a lot of advertising often perpetuates dated gender stereotypes of men but above all women, presenting an often male view of what is supposed to be considered ‘normal’ in today’s society.

In the world of advertising, women are often depicted with a very limited range of characteristics! This often leads to dull, old-fashioned stereotypes based on traditional values that are ingrained in both sexes and are hard to get beyond, however hard we try.

But are they authentic? Do they have to be? Generalizations become a problem when the people targeted don’t relate to the advertisers’ stereotypical images.

Responding to objections last week, Ad Week reported that Swiffer (US) will pull ads for its Swiffer mops featuring a likeness of World War II icon Rosie the Riveter (who in world war II urged women ‘we can do it’ -to roll up their sleeves and join the war effort) after public outcry over perceived sexism, seemingly encouraging women to get back in the kitchen.


Hopefully this is just a momentary blip from the brand whose previous Swiffer Sweeper commercials have bought humour the category and demonstrated a deeper understanding of female culture, and that women are more than house cleaners.


Swiffer Sweeper commercial

Closer to home you might like to take a look at Fairy Liquid. Whether playing on their nostalgic heritage in 2010 to celebrate the brand’s 50th anniversary or having mum washing up to build an athlete for the Olympics, the brand seems intent on maintaining its straight jacket 1950’s housewife stereotype, perhaps reflecting its needs more than women’s aspirations.

Hitting the right note in the P&G stable is Daz. Its 2012 ‘I’m too sexy for my whites’ ad is a good example of the clever use of the cliché housewife stereotype. The insight behind this of course is that while mums want clean laundry their whole life and self-esteem is not centered on this.

Right Said Fred on Daz

The point is women are more diverse and varied that ever – narrowness doesn’t work. If brands are to succeed in getting their attention, advertisers need to change too.

Women are the primary breadwinners in 40 percent of American households with children under 18. In Britain, women account for 46 per cent of the workforce, up from 37 per cent four decades ago.

However, all to often there is an irresistible pull to present a ‘safe’, sanitised and humourless creative idea which saves having to truly understand how to engage women. Advertisers need to understand women and respond to their emotional and practical needs. Give them exciting, creative advertising ideas they will want to talk about positively. And if all else fails, at least make them laugh.

So if you, or your agency are about to use a stereotype in your campaign, ask yourselves:

  1. Do I really need one? If yes, is it:
  2. Patronising V flattering?
  3. Clichéd V accurate & positive?
  4. Over exaggerated V reflecting an idea of reality?
  5. Used for humourous effect? (Key to diffusing potential offence)
  6. Boring V interesting?
  7. Demeaning V uplifting?
  8. Reflects advertiser’s ideal V her aspirations?

The key thing is to concentrate less on the representation of the ideal female character and more on creating an engaging concept that she really relates to.  Think of it as not being about marketing to ‘women’ – it’s about marketing to people, who happen to be female.


From → Advertising

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