Why the U.S. Ad Industry Will Never Regulate Gender Stereotypes

Agencies and brands believe they can filter out cliches

2015's "TexMex Burger" ad was only one example of Carl's Jr.'s long history of gender cliches.
Carl's Jr

Gender cliches in advertising are now officially a thing of the past … or are they?

Earlier this week, the British regulatory body Advertising Standards Authority made headlines around the world by announcing its plans to take “a tougher line” on “ads that mock people for not conforming to gender stereotypes” in order to better serve the public. That news followed heavily publicized controversies over provocative ads from companies like Protein World, which revels in its own reputation for sexism.

The ASA does not have the power to outright ban offending ads as it primarily investigates consumer complaints, but it can publicly recommend that certain campaigns be pulled. And most U.K. media companies follow its guidelines.

A cross-Atlantic controversy

Debates over gender stereotypes are nothing new in the American ad industry, but R/GA svp of strategy and partnerships Jessica Greenwood believes that this sort of state-sanctioned smackdown on sexist spots will never happen in the United States. The British native argues that advertisers on both sides of the Atlantic have been moving toward “much more inclusive representations” in response to consumer demand.

“This is a form of regulation that the U.K. has implemented from the top down,” Greenwood told Adweek, “But in the U.S., those decisions are made every day by millions of people voting with their voices and their wallets.”

Gina Grillo, president and CEO of The Advertising Club of New York, agreed: “U.S. consumers vote [yay] or nay at the cash register. It’s a new world, and companies that are delivering outdated stereotypes are no longer resonating.”

John Kenny, chief strategy officer at FCB Chicago, said his key takeaway from this story is not the threat of regulation (the U.S. has no equivalent to the ASA) but the fact that “an industry that claims to be built on creativity is accused by a bureaucracy of being stereotypical.”

“Our first duty is to help brands stand out in culture, so we should be at the forefront of breaking cliches—and I think our best work does,” he added, citing McCann’s Fearless Girl as well as his own agency’s This Girl Can effort for Sport England.

Social media gives consumers a voice

By now, the news cycle has grown depressingly familiar: A brand releases a campaign that offends or irritates key members of its target audience; those consumers make their opinions known on social media; the backlash to the brand builds; the headlines fade, only to rise again in response to another misguided marketing move.

In one recent example, Shea Moisture—a hair-care company that has long catered almost exclusively to African-American women—quickly pulled an ad campaign focused on white models after some of the brand’s longtime customers spoke up on social about how they felt ignored or left behind.

Samantha Skey, president of female-focused media company SheKnows, argues that this is the very sort of self-regulation that should drive American advertisers’ decisions.

“Corporations should be responsible for the values they project through advertising; media companies should be responsible for the the messages they accept and propagate through their channels and individuals should be responsible for their ability to accept or reject the messages they consume,” she said, adding, “advertising creative should not be controlled to this degree by a regulatory body.”

With the shift into the digital age, it’s also harder for brands and agencies to justify their need for stereotypes, argues Laurel Rossi, CMO of indie agency Rauxa. “Stereotypes have long been a part of advertising as a way of short handing the story to accommodate 30-second buys and quarter-page ads,” she said. “In the digital age, where we have unlimited bandwidth for long-form storytelling, there’s little excuse for reverting to type.”

In a recent interview with Fox Business, now-former Carl’s Jr. CEO Andrew Puzder explained his company’s decision to move away from its famously racy campaigns in a different way, saying, “You can get sex on the internet—you don’t need a Carl’s Jr. or Hardee’s ad.”

“The public is becoming less tolerant of cliches,” said FCB’s Kenny, who pointed to the week-long uproar over Pepsi’s recent Kendall Jenner ad. Despite the industry’s moves away from such problematic narratives, Kenny noted that the American agency world has a long history of producing this sort of work.

“We’ve all seen advertising that has been done by very well-regarded agencies for clients like Carl’s Jr.,” he said. “No one has clean hands.”

Making a change

Carl’s Jr. is only the most prominent example of brands and agencies shifting away from stereotypes in their work. In June, during the Cannes Lions Festival, Unilever announced that it had partnered with UN Women to get stereotypes out of its advertising.

“As part of Unilever’s own commitment to doing things differently, we have challenged every single one of our global brands to move away from unhelpful portrayals of gender and gender roles,” wrote Aline Santos, executive vice president of global marketing at Unilever. “This means fresh, balanced portrayals of men and women that are relevant for today’s consumer.”

Agencies and brands “need to be more intentional with our creative, casting and storytelling decisions,” said Lynn Power, CEO at JWT in New York. “[That will] go some way to change our collective unconscious bias.” JWT in partnership with the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media also unveiled research at Cannes Lions which found that men appear in ads four times more often than women.

Kat Gordon, CEO and founder of The 3% Conference, believes that agencies and brands can fix gender stereotyping in ads.

“[Agencies and brands need to] first have diverse people making the ads,” said Gordon. “Gendered depictions will self-correct. Second, have ad agencies amend their creative briefs with language about how stereotypical depictions of women—or anyone for that matter—are just as off-brand as using the wrong logo in an ad. Address stereotypes at the kick-off meeting, instead of months—and millions of dollars—later.”

The United States and Great Britain have effectively come to the same conclusion in very different ways as brands realize that stereotyping one or more segments of their audience will not help boost sales.

On the other hand, there will always be another Protein World waiting in the wings.