Skewed media spend is reinforcing gender bias in ads

beansProgressive gender portrayals and female character inclusions in advertising are being undermined by skewed ad spend towards traditional gender roles and male characters, amid claims fewer consumers are seeing more inclusive ads.

To mark International Women’s Day, agency CreativeX has joined forces with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media to release a new analysis showing marketers are stunting their ability to improve gender inclusivity and equality in their ads by continuing to perpetuate outdated stereotypes.

Despite over half (58%) of advertising characters being female between 2020-21 (compared to 41% of male characters), progress in projecting gender equality is blunted due to viewing figures.

The analysis of just over 3,400 ads across YouTube, Twitter and Amazon, totalling $836m (£637m) in ad spend in the US, should act as a warning call to marketers reviewing their brand strategies in 2022, the study insists.

It highlights that while brands are making progressive choices about how female characters appear in their ads, they are investing more ad spend into promoting ads that feature traditional gender roles; casting and creative choices about who to feature in ads is the first step, but this strategy must receive enough promotional spend for audiences to see these progressive characters.

For example, of the female characters in the environments analysed, 44% were shown in professional settings. These ads, however, receive almost 50% less ad spend than the frequency they appear in this setting (24%), therefore a minimised reach to target audiences. Comparing this to the gender counterpart, 41% of characters in professional environments were male, receiving almost double the ad spend (49%).

CreativeX founder and CEO Anastasia Leng said: “Our research highlights that brands are unintentionally alienating their audiences through storytelling that is male-oriented and traditional in its gender portrayal. Marketers’ intent and their actions are not lining up, and this gap will continue to widen unless we build in systematic and objective ways of monitoring our content representation efforts and progress.”

Together, CreativeX and Geena Davis Institute are leading the charge to improve diversity and inclusion within the advertising industry. To help combat under-representation, there are a number of factors which brands must take on board.

Firstly, diversify female characters on-screen. When female characters appear in ads, they are much more likely to be young and have lighter skin tones, so brands should increase portrayals that highlight female characters’ intersectional identities.

Secondly, be wary of subtle gender bias. Although male characters and female characters are both shown in professional settings, these settings reinforce gender traditional professional roles (i.e., male characters as builders, female characters as makeup artists).

While male and female characters are both shown in domestic settings, subtle gender bias persists in the specific activities they carry out in these settings (e.g., male characters are more likely to be shown cooking at a barbeque, while female characters are in the kitchen and serving food).

Finally, brands should support progressive roles with ad spend. Marketers must do more to create and promote diverse advertising, and should be measuring how their media budget is allocated by group, not just by creative.

On average, consumers see 2 million ads every year, and it is estimated that the global ad market is set to top $700bn in 2022. Marketers who do not adapt and develop creative executions that resonate effectively and purposefully, risk alienating their consumers and damaging their brand perception.

CreativeX also found that there is an apparent ageism in adverts, which is also compounded by gender bias. Adult (26-59) characters featured four times more than all other demographics combined. Featuring in less than 1% of ads, 60% of characters aged 60 and over are male. Put simply, less than .04% of ads featured a female character aged 60 and over.

CreativeX and the Geena Davis Institute are urging marketers and advertisers to create a long-lasting positive impact that resonates with how their audiences’ see and feel about themselves.

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