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Are brands keeping up with pandemic-driven shifts in gender roles?

Stories /23 November 2020

Brands tend to portray gender using stereotypical roles in their advertisements. In most ads, men are the primary income earners and women as the primary carers. Marketers say this is audience-driven—that adverts simply reflect consumer attitudes and behaviour. But with the pandemic seeing women and men share caring and breadwinning roles, are brands following the market?

This was the main discussion point at the Online Forum on Gender, Advertising and the Pandemic on 23 September, organised by the University of the Philippines (UP) College of Mass Communication with the support of Investing in Women (IW), the Philippine Association for Communication and Media Research, Inc, and the Ad Standards Council.

The forum highlighted findings from the IW-funded UP study Gender Representation in Philippine Advertisements, which is based on an analysis of more than 1,000 adverts that ran in 2018. It also gathered industry experts and academics to discuss what the findings mean in the COVID context.

The impact of stereotypes

Prof Fernando Paragas, who led the UP research, said that whilst it is no longer common for advertisements to show women simply as objects for men to look at, nevertheless, gender stereotypes remain common. Women and men are typically represented in traditional roles in advertisements and so brand marketing tends to reinforce women’s roles as carers and homemakers and men’s roles as breadwinners, even though many people no longer live like this in real life.

UP found that of the interpersonal roles depicted in ads, familial was the biggest category (41%), with more women (43%) than men (39%) depicted in this role. Women were also overwhelmingly shown as the homemaker compared to men (11% versus 1%). In the workplace, characters who are portrayed as skilled labourers are highly likely to be men than women (5% versus 1%).

At the forum, Cindy Cruz-Cabrera, Gender and Development Officer for UP Diliman, noted that dominance of these roles can reinforce stereotypes or norms that limit women and men. Even stereotypes that intend to put women in a positive light can be harmful, she said, noting as an example the “wais” (prudent) trope for women in advertisements.

“On the one hand, it promotes the woman as a decision-maker. On the other, it puts upon the woman the burden of ensuring that the family purse can cover everything—and ignores other factors such as the absence of disposable income,” Cruz-Cabrera said. “There’s a similar pressure on men with the ‘galante’ (spendthrift) stereotype. He needs to be able to able to spend,” she added.

Mirroring the market?

Experts at the forum acknowledged the tendency for brands to rely on stereotypes to connect with their target market. “To a large extent, business communications in the Philippines is still stereotypically gendered—male is male, female is female—and communication campaigns, even advocacy campaigns, are still very much gendered,” said Belle Tiongco, President of the International Association of Business Communicators-Philippines

“We are quite biased in terms of talking to moms,” said Rommel Pentinio, General Manager of media agency Starcom Philippines. This bias, he added, might be driven by brands’ understanding that mothers are the ones who stay home and make everyday purchase decisions for the family and are thus the main target audience of most household product brands.

Keeping up with shifts

A question raised in the forum is whether such assumptions inform the stereotyped portrayals of women and men in ads. Panellists, for example, noted how more and more men are participating in homemaking—and therefore tend to be the users, decision-makers, and purchasers for household products. Men can therefore be the target of ads for such products, not just mothers.

There is evidence for such shifts even before COVID. In 2019, some 68% of men surveyed in a Kantar research said they buy supplies for the household, yet the same research suggested that 98% of ads for baby products, laundry products and household cleaners target women.

The IW Social Norms, Attitudes and Practices Survey also showed that 57% of Filipino urban millennials (women and men) who are currently partnered and have kids said they share caring roles with their spouses, and 36% shared breadwinning roles. The IW survey was deployed in May 2020 among urban millennials in the Philippines—1,000 women and 1,000 men.

Panellists agreed that COVID-19 and the lockdowns imposed during the pandemic could accelerate these shifts—and brands should consider how to adjust to remain relevant to their consumers. Chiqui Escareal-Go, CEO of marketing consultancy firm Mansmith and Fielders, asked: “Have behavioural concepts been considered in delivering messages during these times?”

“With men and women now working from home, beyond just measuring who does the bulk of the work, shouldn’t we also measure who has the biggest voice in making final decisions not just in the traditional fields like household upkeep or taking care of the children?” Escareal-Go said.

The role of research

One of the ways to address the consumer assumptions that lead to stereotyping in ads is improving market research. “Research is key to understanding consumers and crucial to developing advertisements,” said Carole Sarthou, Managing Partner of research firm Consumer Republique, even as she noted that sometimes the sample selection for market research is already biased.

But there are also innovative research briefs for advertisements, she added, citing as an example a brand traditionally marketed to women, but which recently asked them to include men—both married and single—as part of their segmentation. “This allowed the brand to surface consumer data that would otherwise not have been collected,” Sarthou said.

Sarthou also noted opportunities to challenge stereotypes through a psychographic approach for marketing. This approach targets consumers not only based on demographic information but based on usage and purchase decision-making and behaviour. “These are input to ad copy and visuals as well as communication touchpoints—where do they go, what media do they access,” she said.

“The onus is on us to be closer to the consumers,” Pentinio, for his part, said. He added that if indeed reflecting what is happening in society is key to doing this, then brands and the advertising industry also need to “raise the bar in terms of understanding the Filipino consumers.” Social media could make this easier, as it enables easy access to consumer insights and responses.

Consumers have a role, too

But the interactive nature of social media means consumers, too, can help shape the way gender is portrayed in advertising. David Guerrero, Chair of the Association of Accredited Advertising Agencies (4As) Philippines, said consumers can provide positive reinforcement for brands and ad agencies that are portraying gender in transformative ways in their campaigns.

“If you see something you like or you think is doing a good job in gender portrayal, then write and let them know and show your support. Write to the brand and say, ‘I love that ad and I want to see more of that!’ Brands listen and marketers listen, and they are encouraged when they show your appreciation. Of course, show your appreciation, too, by buying the product,” Guerrero said.

In her closing remarks, Investing in Women CEO Dr Julia Newton-Howes also stressed how important it is for both industry and audience to be critical of gender portrayals in advertising. She also highlighted the value of being open to the shifting consumer perceptions, attitudes, and behaviours around gender roles, and how gender equality can drive better business results in any industry.

“Advertising does not only mirror but moulds society’s attitudes perceptions and behaviours,” said Dr Newton-Howes. Even when ads mirror society, they should consider the mounting evidence of shifts in the roles women and men play at home and at work.

“Are we attuned to these shifts, or are we stuck with our assumptions of how consumers think and behave?” Dr Newton-Howes said.

Watch the video of the forum below:

Visit the Knowledge hub for more resources on Influencing Gender Norms.


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