Will the Glass Lion Smash the Glass Ceiling?
With International Women’s Day just around the corner, the ad industry is marshalling its forces to try and tackle the *kinda problematic* way it deploys, indulges and reinforces stereotypes. The Ad Council has just released a rather pleasing film as part of its ‘Love Has No Labels’ campaign that challenges unconscious biases and assumptions. Meanwhile Cannes Lions has announced the ‘Glass Lion’, a new award that will celebrate work that overturns, subverts or completely demolishes the gender stereotypes that advertising just doesn’t want to let go of.
I’m all in favour of anything that encourages creatives, clients, strategists and the rest to think differently about people - contradictory, multifaceted, surprising creatures that we are.
Gender, for example, is such a clumsy lens through which to view the world. Current developments in biology, neuroscience and psychology are showing that the dividing line between men and women is less of an insurmountable barrier and more of a vague suggestion anyway. For one thing, evidence from epigenetic research into the influence of hormones in the womb shows that it takes more than the existence of a ‘Y’ chromosome to determine how masculine or feminine an individual is. Even statistically supported sex differences (spacial awareness, say) are more about overlapping bell curves than discrete, separate groups (and often the overlap can be pretty large). In any case, these differences can only give you a rough idea about a population – they can’t tell you about the individual. What’s more the existence of intersex people and transgendered people suggests that two unrefined categories is a pretty unsophisticated way to divvy up humanity. These days the idea that gender roles can be socially determined or dictated is one that we’re all pretty familiar with – the next step is reading up on the surprising fluidity and diversity that underpins the biology of sex and gender.
But not only are such stereotypes inaccurate, they’re at best unhelpful and at worst utterly poisonous. I’ve lost the tally board of the number of men who have complained to me about being portrayed as slobs in ads for domestic products while women are neat freak superheroines (yeah, whoever came up with that stereotype has never seen my workspace…). Stereotype threat is a well-studied psychological phenomenon whereby people’s performance can be damaged by negative stereotypes. The classic example is girls and maths performance, but this applies to all sorts of other biases too. Gender stereotyping can even kill. Deutsch New York recently created a campaign to increase awareness of the prevalence of heart disease among women. It’s seen as a ‘male’ disease – thanks in part to the fact that that’s how it’s portrayed in popular entertainment and advertising.
Paradoxically, stereotypes or, at least, reductive categorisation or sweeping generalisations form the bedrock of a lot of advertising. Chunking humanity down into sex, age group, income, sexuality, ethnicity or whatever is an easy way to target marketing activity and ads plastered with an eye-catching pair of boobs or a domestically incompetent ‘dad’ get the message across to consumers quickly. But since when were ‘quick’ and ‘easy’ synonymous with ‘effective’?
What’s more biases or stereotypes can be eerily insidious; the Love Has No Labels campaign is trying to get us to question the choices and assumptions we make. Crippling self-doubt might be the nemesis to creative flow but a little self-awareness can’t be too much to ask.
I wish the Glass Lion well and I’m curious to see how it pans out. It’s a baby step and not a solution in and of itself. The entrants will be a self-selecting bunch and, while I’ve no doubt the jury will come across some incisive gems, there will be lots of patronising dross to sort through. In an ideal world all work would be fresh and human and free from the baggage of bias, not just the odd project. But the world, as it insists on reminding me every flipping day, is very, very far from ideal. I also wonder if the focus on gender, above all other problematic subjects isn’t a bit limiting. It’s the age of intersectionality, y’all. The way disability, race, beliefs, sexuality, social class are portrayed in advertising can be thoughtlessly damaging too. It’s only the Glass Lion’s first year but if they truly want to be the ‘Lion for Change’ perhaps they need to look beyond gender?
But at least we’re starting to talk about these things. There is a growing volume of (justified) hand wringing about the obstacles facing women within the advertising, but it means nothing unless we also acknowledge the impact the creative product has on the lives of women and men on the outside. Out there. In the real world.