For decades advertising has been notorious for perpetuating stereotypes, but their continued use leads to ineffective work and damaging cultural norms. Here Madeleine Young, Strategist at BBH, outlines 4 practical steps agencies must to take make a positive impact on the work and the world.

I was sixteen when I first appreciated the capacity of advertising to make my life worse. I was watching TV after school and a blockbuster ad for cosmetics came on. It featured about 500 super-slim, nearly naked women on the beach. At the time I wasn’t able to articulate why, but I knew immediately that this ad would create problems for me.

The intense, minute-long flood of perfect, thin bodies and breast implants on screen confirmed to my 16-year-old brain that this was beyond a doubt what adult women should look like. I could sense a vindictive told-you-so undertone, an implied accusation in the breezy demeanour of the girls on screen. If we can all look like this then why don’t you? It’s so simple – and fun! It felt like being the butt of a joke just overheard as you leave the room, like I hadn’t realised how ridiculously – how humiliatingly – outside the acceptable range of attractiveness I sat until then, but everyone else had known forever.

Almost everyone has a story like this. Damaging stereotypes have prevailed in advertising since its earliest days: the skinny girl laughing into a bowl of salad, the woman literally seduced by fat-free yoghurt, the bumbling dad so incompetent he can’t be left alone with his own children, the unobtrusive mum who lives to wash ketchup stains out of school shirts, the disapproving asian family with one eyebrow constantly raised, the black kid from the wrong side of the tracks who turns out to be a sweetheart (or doesn’t), the saintly wheelchair user, the wise-cracking gay best friend, the list goes on.

It can be funny to reflect on how cartoonish advertising stereotypes continue to be, but their effects are serious and widely felt. In the case of gender representation, the Women Not Objects project has documented the devastating effects on self esteem caused by the pervasive objectification of women in advertising. For other groups, like people with disabilities, the results are more insidious, in that rather than being misrepresented, they are erased from the media landscape altogether. Research conducted by Unilever in 2015 found that 40% of women did not identify with the kind of women they saw in advertising (1), but Scope found in 2016 that a staggering 80% of people with disabilities do not see themselves represented in TV and Media at all (2).

It seems astonishing that this is still happening – that an industry known for attracting Guardian-reading types can perpetuate stereotypes this damaging, and to this enormous extent. But perhaps we shouldn’t be so surprised. Because, while it would be unfair to impute malicious intent to the industry as a whole (though many do) our working processes are deeply problematic, and render us particularly prone to produce work which massively under-delivers on diversity.

The most important and long overdue transformation in thinking for our industry is the reversal of our dependance on damaging stereotypes. Redressing this tendency alone could create seismic shift not only in our commercial effectiveness, but in perceptions of the industry as a whole. It feels like a big ask, but significant progress can be made right now simply by altering our ways of working. Here are some starters for ten:

#1 Breaking our cycle of self-referencing
A simple first step in ending our reliance on stereotypes is to stop using our own creative output as a benchmark for ‘normal’. Many creative processes look to other ads for examples of how to communicate complex messages or – worse – use existing ads as creative stimulus. Doing so perpetuates a status quo in which highly stereotypical depictions of certain groups is falsely attributed the title of ‘normal’ or ‘neutral’ purely because they appear so regularly in our chosen source material. Meanwhile, narratives which are more representative of reality, but which look entirely different to ads that have preceded them, are wrongly perceived to be politically provocative, or to be adding an additional layer of meaning which dilutes the core message. For example, the recent John Lewis Christmas campaign, which featured a black family in an aspirational setting, was perceived by industry insiders as a political statement with implicit purpose messaging, but remained largely unremarked upon by consumers, who saw it for what is was: normal. Looking outside our industry to movies, art, and so on for broader creative references is vital, and something every agency can commit to now.

#2 Creating accountability through data
Agencies should audit the diversity of their workforces and their creative output. A lack of diversity in any organisation has an adverse effect on decision making, but in our industry the effects are particularly direct. Given that diverse hiring is a long term strategy though, agencies must begin auditing their work for signs of unconscious bias, as this can be rectified in the short term.

Agencies could measure the diversity of their output against nationally representative statistics for BAME consumers, people with disabilities, and LGBTQ people. Any gaps between national levels of representation and those in our work would highlight clearly and empirically where our organisational biases and creative blindspots are most at play.

This data-driven approach has already been used in Hollywood, where the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media used machine learning to collect data on the representation of women in movies, then presented the findings to industry creatives. Following exposure to the data, 68% of filmmakers targeted reconfigured two or more of their projects to better represent women (3). In Davis’ own words;

‘Data helps us understand what it is we need to encourage creators to do. Small things can have a huge impact’

#3 Unbiasing our segmentation data
As planners, simplification of complex behaviours is vital, but the criteria by which we segment audiences are a key contributing factor in our industry’s reliance on stereotypes. While simplification is a necessity, in training a laser focus on wealth, income, and spending habits we have entirely erased considerations of consumers’ race, disability and sexual orientation from the data we input at the beginning of every brief. This in turn has allowed us to imagine that our audience is almost always white, heteronormative, nuclear families and to cast very narrowly under the guise of ‘reflecting’ the lives of said imaginary target customers. A practical step in rectifying this would be simply to include nationally representative statistics for BAME, LGBTQ people, and so on on every creative brief. This at the very least would serve as a reminder to planners, creatives and clients alike that constantly foregrounding white middle class families is a choice that should be made mindfully, not a default position.

#4 Decoupling diversity from ‘purpose’ branding
Brands and agencies alike have recently become very attached to the idea that the growing gap between corporate and consumer values can be bridged by purpose-led marketing. However, we need to disentangle representation from purpose marketing for three reasons: it’s not necessary, and it’s a barrier to entry, and it severely stunts thinking around diversity.

Unilever and Women Not Objects (4) have shown that removing stereotypes improves ad impact on its own, without needing to include additional purpose messaging. Eliding diversity with purpose also makes representative casting less attractive to brands who feel justifiably uneasy about entering political discourse. In addition, conflating representation with purpose further entrenches the idea that anything outside of a white, middle class, nuclear family setting is inherently political, which it is not.

We don’t need to go into solemn battle against social inequality on every brief in order to address diversity issues, and we unhelpfully pigeon-hole diversity when we approach it in this way. We need to retrain ourselves to see representative casting as part of business as usual, not window-dressing for brand purpose work.

There is a pressing moral imperative here, but also an undeniable commercial one. Unilever’s CMO has said that his own company’s commitment to ‘Unstereotype’ its output

‘is not a moral issue [but] an economic one’ . (5)

I would argue it’s both, but Unilever has seen a 12% increase in impact in ads which removed normative stereotyping (6). Women Not Objects has also found that female objectification has a negative impact on both brand reputation and purchase intent across all age groups and demographics (7). So it seems that stereotypes are stunting our efficacy, and ‘sex’ does not in fact sell. You heard it here first.

Our industry doesn’t have to be the bad guy, the famous bastion of status quo thinking. Stereotyping in ads is not a necessary evil, it’s a hindrance. We cannot, however, wait for organic transformation to occur. Mitigating bias in an industry dependant on snappy shortcuts is an active endeavour, a conscious, deliberate undertaking, but also a huge opportunity for commercial and creative growth. Instead of waiting passively for the incremental shifts of societal change to trickle into our work, practical changes to our process can transform our thinking, our work, our client’s bottom lines, and our effect on the world.


(1) The Third Generation Woman, quantitative online study conducted in Brazil, Italy, UK, Russia, Indonesia and Turkey. 1400 participants, all 30-39 years old, ABC1. Fieldwork 2015

(2) Disability In The Media Study, Scope, 2016

(3) The women missing from the silver screen and the technology used to find them, online publication on behalf of Google USA

(4) Quantifying The Effect of Objectifying Women In Advertising, Badger & Winters, in collaboration with the Advertising benchmark index

(5) No more ‘vacuous’ women in ads, says Unilever’s Keith Weed, Shona Ghosh, Campaignlive, 2016

(6) ‘Impact’ measured as a combined score for viewer involvement and enjoyment

(7) Quantifying The Effect of Objectifying Women In Advertising, Badger & Winters, in collaboration with the Advertising benchmark index