Don’t blame marketing for reflecting a sexist society!

Don’t blame marketing for reflecting a sexist society!

Is marketing unavoidably sexist? I’ve been motivated to think a great deal about the question of sexism in marketing and advertising this last week following the amount of press Netregistry gained for using two female nurses at this year’s CeBIT expo. Were Netregistry perpetuating a sexist image unnecessarily or are stereotypical gender roles unavoidable within marketing when trying to reach a target audience?

There are two issues involved that require separate analysis. Firstly, the concept of ‘sex sells’, which I will dissect in a future post. Secondly, whether marketing and advertising are to blame for allegedly perpetuating gender stereotyping, which is the subject of this post.

Reaching the target audience

Contrary to what some critics have suggested to me in the past few days, marketing does not have a responsibility for improving societal attitudes or breaking down gender stereotypes. Marketing is responsible to – and paid for – the brand that is attempting to persuade a specific target market with a particular message. Certainly there are ethical guidelines and rules that apply in how this is achieved, but there are also certain realities that dictate how marketing campaigns represent certain groups.

The most obvious example is in the use of housewife advertising. For most household products, gender roles are still quite clearly split along old fashioned lines. The housewife is at home, deals with the kids, cooks, does laundry and cleans; while the husband works, drives cars, watches sport, buys tools and drinks beer. Certainly, some campaigns blur those lines a little, but for every woman in a suit we see, there’s another career woman portrayed picking up the kids on the way home and juggling work with the cooking.

Is marketing therefore undeniably sexist? Are all these agencies populated by misogynistic dinosaurs deliberately perpetuating a sexist view of the world in an attempt to keep women in the kitchen?

Well, no actually.

Blaming the Mirror

Marketing agencies are exceptionally careful in how they target and represent people within campaigns. They are certainly not out to deliberately misrepresent gender roles – in fact, to do so would seriously undermine the effectiveness of a campaign. The goal is to reach and achieve cut through with a specific audience – the key demographic most receptive to the message. When advertising snacks for school lunchboxes, marketers know that – even today – the majority of food purchasing decisions are made by the woman in the house. That’s not sexist – just statistical fact. Whether that fact is unfortunate, disappointing or lamentable, I leave up to you. But that doesn’t change the truth that more women than men look after the household groceries and determine what their children will eat.

Therefore, an advertisement attempts to reach identification with this group. Placing a man in the role of lunchbox preparer would fail to resonate with the majority of people at whom the message is aimed. It would appear artificial to the very people the brand wanted to reach.

The same observation can be applied across all advertising. The vast majority of power tool purchases are by men, so even though it is a gender stereotype to only portray male carpenters, tradesmen and DIY enthusiasts, it is because that stereotype is still the vast majority. Placing a woman in the carpenter role would only allow a tiny proportion of the audience to identify and relate with the character’s actions – thereby sending the marketing message to the wrong people.

This is why Lowes Menswear is advertised by footy players, why perfumes are advertised by female celebrities, why Brand Power adverts are fronted by a female presenter.

Although marketing is designed as an influential medium, it is also forced into the role of society’s mirror. The influential power is concentrated in the specific marketing message. Everything that backs up the message – the scenario, characters, actions, etc – are designed to create maximum identification with the largest amount of the target demographic. Therefore, these elements need to mirror society and often exaggerate those trends to achieve instant recognition within the few seconds the advertisement, billboard or poster has to make an instant impression. A marketing campaign can not, and should not, muddy the message by mixing in idealistic agendas, unless this is the campaign brief.


The theory of cultural ideology is that media reflects the ideas and beliefs of society. To take some broad examples, there were many films focussed on nuclear war during the 1980’s due to the extreme nature of the Cold War at that time. Once the Berlin Wall came down, the Russian’s were no longer portrayed as the bad guys and nuclear plots decreased. After 9/11, more villains were portrayed as coming from the Middle East. In recent years, there is a growth in corporate villains in popular culture, reflecting society’s growing distrust in big business.

Ideology is about far more than where the villains come from in James Bond thrillers. Every aspect of our society represented in our media, stories, art and advertising is influenced by the state of the world at the time of it’s creation. This is where we come to the chicken and egg situation.

As media can – supposedly – influence society (as the critics insist) and society cannot help but influence media, there is a complex and continual looping of ideology. Deciding that a new television drama will featurea 50/50 split across gender roles – male nurses and female carpenters – may seem novel and striking a blow for gender equality, but it would most likely have very little effect on society as a whole and may find that it fails to find an audience willing to buy into the fiction. The world doesn’t feel like ours.

Ideology, therefore, shifts very slowly – as does society. It doesn’t like being shoved in a particular direction, because artificiality stands out and is often rejected by the audience as false – even if it represents a higher ideal.

Marketing will continue to represent the genders in the same way it always has and will only gradually shift to equality if genuine statistics show the same is happening to society.


  1. Hummm… Yes, I tend to agree with what you say *but*… there’s a but…
    As you say, marketing is a mirror building a connection through identification. That means that marketing seldom is or wants to be at the cutting edge of sociological change. Therefore, marketing messages or styles may easily confirm and strengthen certain types, visions, ideas.
    In the above case of the female nurse, the campaign may perpetuate a stereotype.
    I’m quite confident, too, that not all marketing messages use women (or men, sometimes…) as a way to reflect a sociological reality through which to build rapport with a segment of the audience but, instead, to entice. … sells 🙂

  2. Hmmm, I think you are delineating the role of marketing as something propagated by agencies rather than brands. Brands are ultimately responsible for their own marketing efforts, and brands are generally owned by companies which have certain responsibilities in society.
    I don’t think stereotyping and sexism are the same thing. Creating communication that reflects the target audience, and allows them to connect with the communication, is not necessarily the same as ‘holding up a mirror’.
    Under the banner of this argument, you could argue that Australia is racist and therefore it’s OK to depict racism within marketing as it is merely a mirror of society.
    In addition, we don’t always want to see the mirror held up, especially when the reflection is not particularly attractive.
    TV networks, brands and the media often underestimate their audiences.

  3. Ruud. certainly sex sells and I agree that both issues – the reflections of gender stereotyping within society and the use of women (and/or men) to entice – are at play. But I carefully wanted to separate both issues in order to discuss them individually, as I mentioned in the opening of the post.
    I found that both issues were often lumped together when debating marketing sexism, which distorted the argument somewhat. It became harder to decide whether the person was claiming a campaign was sexist because of gender stereotyping or in using sexual innuendo, and the answers are different for each.
    There will be a future post on the ‘sex sells’ angle.

  4. Kimota says

    Not so sure I agree with everything you say there, Kate. Whether the marketing comes from the brand or an agency, the goal is the same – engage effectively with the widest proportion of the target market in a way that relates to them. Yes, brands are responsible for their own marketing – agency led or otherwise – but I think they are no more or less responsible than society as a whole in changing attitudes. Whether sexism and stereotyping are the same or not, many people do equate one with the other which is one reason why I was careful to separate this issue from the ‘sex sells’ debate. There are critics that describe these female stereotypes as ‘demeaning’ and thereby inherently sexist. I agree that i don’t think it is sexist, which is why I tried to debunk the idea here.
    Some members of the audience may not want the ‘mirror’ held up in a particular campaign, but that may mean that they are simply not the target. I hate the Lowes Menswear footy ads for being so blokey, but I am not the target audience. It seems the target audience respond extremely well to those ridiculous adverts. yes this is a generalisation and some may not want to be reflected even when they are the target, but marketing has to deal in generalisations when constructing large campaigns.

  5. A different Kate says

    “… but marketing has to deal in generalisations when constructing large campaigns.”
    Or, take a different angle. Instead of trotting out the same old themes – oh and here are some chicks in outfits/your way – sit in a room with your marketing team and try something new. Challenge the norms. If a marketing campaign is ground-breaking then surely the business behind it has a similar ethos.
    Ideas are your day job.

  6. Kimota says

    Hi “Different Kate”… 😉
    As mentioned above, I specifically separated what you described as the ‘chicks in outfits’ issue from this topic of gender stereotyping. That, I think, merits separate discussion and I wished to explore the issue of gender roles in marketing without confusing it with that far more controversial and emotion-fuelled debate.
    As to your other comment, even a groundbreaking campaign has to resonate with the target market. A groundbreaking campaign can still fail if those it is aimed at don’t feel it represents them. Would a hardware store sell more or fewer car jacks if they aimed their campaign at female mechanics – even though there are female mechanics out there? Are they biased or deserving of criticism for marketing to the larger demographic and thereby inadvertently perpetuating the stereotype? A brand wants the target audience to identify with the person in the advert. You too can be a wonderful mechanic with our car jack. You two can have happy healthy kids if you give them our muesli bars. Hence, why the person in the advert is selected to represent the majority of that target audience and therefore falls into those statistically correct but stereotypical gender roles. Challenging the norms of a target audience, in this respect, would be advertising suicide.

  7. Different Kate says

    Yes, my “chicks in outfits” aside detracted from what I was trying to get across 🙂 My asides are my Achilles heal.
    Do you feel that marketing needs to be directed at one gender or another? Can you relate to a market without referencing gender? Can you target a market based solely on value propositions?

  8. Kimota says

    I think it’s less about directing a campaign at one gender or another and more about directing at a specific demographic. Sometimes, that demographic may be characterised by gender, sometimes it won’t. Advertising a retirement village to retirees is a pretty gender neutral demographic. However, where the demographic is statistically related to gender – such as car jacks or laundry powder – it is very difficult to have the target audience respond with the message if it doesn’t contain a person they can identify with. I am sure it is possible to create a more abstract campaign that doesn’t contain a person of either gender to advertise both products, but an abstract campaign will have a far harder time relating the product to the every day needs of the audience. As an aside, (I’m prone to them too) ironically I have no need for a car jack being untypically completely unimpressed by cars, whereas I do buy the laundry powder and spend Saturday mornings with the washing machine – so I completely understand why some people feel marketing doesn’t speak to them when it targets the broader demographic. Doesn’t mean advertisers are wrong for targeting the majority, though.

  9. Different Kate says

    Good point.
    I guess I don’t blame marketing for reflecting a sexist society. I just wish it would try harder sometimes. You know that old “if you’re not a part of the solution, you’re part of the problem” thing – but marketing is really about selling, not changing society.
    Oh great. Now I have talked myself into despair.
    *goes to buy a car jack*