Why banning stereotypes isn’t political correctness gone mad

A woman doing the washing up; a man putting up a shelf; a smiling boy playing with a toy car; a pensioner pottering in the garden.

What do these all have in common? They are all stereotypes, all of which we’ve seen in advertising campaigns at one time or another.

Just as bad as a lack of diversity in marketing is the use of stereotypes. Not only is it lazy, but it suggests a complete disconnect from the real world and real people.

We look at why marketing teams should stop taking the easy way out.

Why do brands use stereotypes?

Because it’s easy! That might sound harsh, but sadly many companies fall into the stereotype trap, because it’s easier than the alternative – proper in-depth research.

To be fair, that kind of research is getting harder to do. Not only can it be incredibly time-consuming and costly, but as more and more regulations come in it’s becoming a lot harder to collect and use data. This makes it tempting to either use historic profiles of previous customers or to base profiles on existing stereotypes. After all a stereotype is a:

“widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing”

Stereotypes exist for a reason, so why not use them?

But the key word in the above definition is ‘oversimplified’, and campaigns that use stereotypes not only inevitably fail to fulfil their full potential but more damagingly help to perpetuate existing stereotypes. It’s probably why so many of us think a gamer is a nerdy young man who lives his life online. In fact, the average age of a video game player is 31 and 47% of players are women.

It’s what makes this ad for PlayStation’s Double Life so good. Not only does it not assume gamers are all one homogenous group, it also ticks all the diversity boxes, but in a genuine way which makes you feel they really know their customer base.

Why using stereotypes is so problematic

If you look back into the annals of marketing, there are some unbelievably sexist ads:

‘Cigarettes are like women. The best ones are thin and rich’

The Chef does everything but cook – that’s what wives are for!’

Today, these ads look dated and sexist as society, (thankfully!) has moved on.  Women are no longer expected to be solely responsible for cleaning and childcare while men aren’t the only ones thought capable of using a power drill.

But while we might like to think times have changed and those kinds of stereotypes are outdated and redundant, we still seen them cropping up in advertising. Look at Co-op’s 2017 Easter Egg campaign whose headline was ‘Be a good egg. Treat your daughter for doing the washing up’, or even worse last year’s  pandemic ad from the UK government, which featured women home schooling children and doing domestic chores while a man relaxed on the sofa!

More concerningly the pandemic campaign was created despite the ban on adverts perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes, introduced by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) back in 2019. An indication of just how ingrained stereotypes are in our culture.

As the ASA put it “harmful gender stereotypes in ads can contribute to inequality in society..”

And if you think the ban is just politically correctness gone mad, just look at the Lynx Africa ad with Anthony Joshua or the Lingcars ad,  both of which play on the ‘strong, viral black man’ stereotype, which resulted in the latter ad being banned for objectifying black men.

Maybe the only answer is more advertising bans covering areas such as race, culture and disability.

And if you think that is a bit extreme, bear in mind  research has found children pick up on stereotypes at a young age and it can actually hinder their academic performance.

How stereotypes have a negative impact on brand and revenue

Why would men buy a brand which makes them out to be useless fathers? Why would a woman buy a car from a company who thinks the most exciting thing she does is look after a baby unlike her male counterpart who is off having fabulous adventures? And yet Philadelphia and Volkswagen thought these ads were acceptable concepts until they were banned for their gender stereotypes.

Recent research has shown using stereotypes can have a negative impact on a brand’s reputation and bottom-line. A study by Kantar found two-thirds of women skip stereotypical ads while another study found bucking gender stereotypes sends positive signals about a brand.

Those findings shouldn’t come as a surprise. Avoiding stereotypes shows a brand is making an effort and trying to connect to real people rather than making assumptions about who their customers are. Just as with diversity, people want to feel a connection with the people they see in an advertisement, with the result their opinion of the brand will be more favourable.

If you’re not sure it makes a difference, then take a leaf out of Burger King’s book. Back in 2014, they released a Proud Whooper to celebrate the LGBTQ+ community. It was considered a risk at the time, given their advertising tending to focus on the stereotypical nuclear family, but it was an unmitigated success generating over one billion media impressions and 7 million video views. As Burger King proved – moving away from stereotypes can actually be good for business.

Brands have a responsibility to do better

Of course, getting it right isn’t always easy and you could argue views on what constitutes a stereotype vary.

 We’ve mentioned before how much we dislike the Aviva ad where two women crash into a pet shop. We didn’t like its use of animals (especially those you should never find in a pet shop) but thinking about it what about the stereotype of a ‘women driver’. We’ve all heard the jokes, and quite frankly, patronising comments about women behind the wheel:

“The rear-view mirror is not for checking your hair or make-up”

“We bumped into some old friends yesterday, my wife was driving.”

So why wasn’t the ad banned for being sexist especially given recent research found women drivers are in fact better than men!

Spotting stereotypes can be difficult, especially as we’re all guilty of making assumptions about particular groups or cultures. But just as with diversity, brands have a responsibility for reflecting modern society and helping bring out change. And perpetuating harmful, outdated and potentially dangerous stereotypes isn’t the way to do that.