Women in Their Right Place

Stereotyping in advertising is rife, it seems, with certain roles and tasks still being exclusively attributed to men or women.

And while it’s nothing like the gender depiction in the 1950s and 1960s, which would be deemed offensive today, women are still shown predominantly in domestic or family settings that bear little resemblance to modern society.

Trying to get local brands to concede that their advertising might be out of step is no easy task, with many agencies and brands shying away from the debate.

However, one brand manager in the beauty and cosmetics space tells the FM: “I accept that a lot of advertising, particularly aimed at the lower end of the market, could be deemed problematic compared with higher-earning demographics.

“But our job is to represent different strata of society as accurately as we can, and this might reinforce the concept of patriarchy. I’m not saying it’s right, I’m just saying it is.”

Film director Meja Shoba says: “We see more women in ads because most products are household items that target women in domestic settings. And if black women are part of the story, then it’s lighter-skin women because the world values proximity to whiteness and finds lighter women more appealing.”

Khuthala Gala Holten, co-MD at Joe Public, tells the FM that it’s not hard to find insensitive advertising and brands. “We know that young women compare themselves to images in the media now more than ever. Therefore it is vital that brands take responsibility to represent all women, of all shades, in a modern and positive way. What everyone wants in this world is to feel seen.”

She says progress has been made, citing Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign depicting women of all shapes and shades in the first decade of this century.

Women are appearing more frequently in ads. Over the past two years, they featured 34% more than men, but that is where the progress ends.

According to a study by data research agency Creative X, women shown in domestic or family settings have increased to 66% of 10,000 ads analysed in 2022, compared with 32% in 2021.

The study says women who were portrayed in professional settings decreased from 16% in 2021 to 7% in 2022.

Creative X says even when women appear in ads, there’s a bias to those with the lightest skin tones. Across all ads, women with darker skin tones featured 80% less than women with the lightest. These same women appeared 58% less frequently in professional settings.

And more adspend is being put behind women displayed in family and domestic settings, increasing the reach and influence of these portrayals. In 2022, while 7% of women were featured in professional settings, these portrayals were supported by only 4.7% of total adspend.

Khangelani Dziba, head of PR and influencer partnerships at RAPT Creative, says the numbers paint a grim reality, holding a mirror to an industry where more work is needed to transform and challenge the portrayals of women as not only homemakers but as leaders across industries.

“To negate this would be completely remiss, and it poses a challenge to advertisers to integrate our social constructions of gender roles and what is deemed acceptable and the norm vs what is not.”

Ana Rocha, VMLY&R executive creative director, tells the FM the ad industry still has huge gender gap issues and has a responsibility to challenge norms. “We can do this by pushing media spend into representation.”

Olivia Leitch, executive producer at Ola Films, says South Africans might be trying too hard when it comes to rainbow nation inclusion.

“We are still stuck in stereotypes. Let’s now rather have single moms leading households, or female business executives, which is more modern-day Africa. Or let’s have a female voice-over advertising an investment bank. Why does it always need to be a man?”

Leitch says she has noticed a shift, however, with new casting briefs being opened up to women more in their true physical selves.

This piece originally appeared in the Financial Mail