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Avoiding stereotyping in advertising pays off

Avoiding stereotyping in advertising pays off

Niki Schroeder

Director Media, Innovation and Creative

Kantar Netherlands


In leading countries around the world, quality of life for women and minorities has never been higher, even as there remains a long way to go. In the Netherlands, the future agenda for improving the lot of these groups is somewhat unclear – not because the country has lagged behind in empowering women and minorities, but rather because of the opposite phenomenon: the country has seen itself as a progressive leader for so long that it runs the risk of missing the work that remains to be done.

This is certainly the case when it comes to the portrayal of women in advertising. At the beginning of 2019, Kantar NL launched an AdReaction report called “Getting Gender Right.When scrolling through the results, it’s clear that in the broadest outlines our industry is doing OK on gender. Sure, there are ways that advertisers could improve portrayals of men and woman, but these can easily be seen as minor issues.

But are they really all that minor? At an industry level, we know that many “little” gender discrepancies can soon add up to a big problem. When we look, for instance, at campaigns that have won awards at Cannes over the past 10 years, we see males have 7x more talk time in advertisements than females – as well as 4x more screen time. What’s more, males are 62% more likely to be portrayed as intelligent in these ads, which supposedly represent the best our industry has to offer. In light of these statistics, it’s fair to ask: Is this gender gap a result of the male-dominated creative industry, or a deeper reflection of our societies’ values? Either way, however, the more important questions should be: Are we truly committed as an industry to narrowing this gender gap? And if so, where should we start?

One reason why we need to make a conscious choice to address this disparity from within is that, perhaps surprisingly, our target Dutch consumers are less likely to be catalysts for change.

In our qualitative research with ordinary consumers, we often get feedback about lack of cultural or sexual diversity in family compositions – but hear less about gender stereotyping. There are sometimes comments about too traditional role patterns, but little comment when males are portrayed as superiority.

Indeed, many people do not seem to care about how women are portrayed in ads – especially when the gender stereotypes on display are subtler and seemingly benign. For instance, consider the Jumbo ads where the key character is a slightly clumsy houseman, and the woman is the one working (but is still the domestic authority). We generally like these kinds of commercials, and do not see the problem of their gender portrayal.

Fortunately, the tide seems to be turning a bit. A cauliflower pizza crust campaign for New York Pizza – in which cauliflowers were used as a bikini – resulted in quite a bit of negative press and even evoked a counter-campaign with cauliflower used to depict a woman’s brain. Gratuitously sexual portrayals of women are less acceptable than they used to be.

Nevertheless, many campaigns still portray women quite traditionally as the family member responsible for taking care of the children and the household. Think about the coffee ad that shows a father burning bread in the oven while his wife is away for the weekend, or countless advertisements featuring the hapless husband and the know-it-all wife.

More often than not, advertising serves to uphold traditional role patterns where women take care of the children and men are responsible for most of the family income and financial decisions. Some might say these the current statistics about the division of labor in most Dutch families. But those statistics are nothing to celebrate. While it’s true that more men are reducing their work hours to take care of the kids, women still lag behind men in career advancement, management promotions, and salaries. Women are also more likely than their husbands to reduce their working hours in order to take care of family.

Helpfully, closing the gender stereotype gap in advertising need not be an exercise in pure altruism. Although consumers may not be explicitly demanding more balanced gender portrayals, there’s evidence to suggest that they’re quite receptive to these portrayals when they do exist. We know from “Getting Gender Right” study, for instance, that advertising which portrays both males and females as aspirational or authoritative is more effective at driving long term brand growth – as compared with brand messaging that skew its portrayals of males and females.

So marketers, planners and creative teams: Will you take up the challenge of using advertising to help move Dutch society in a more equal direction? To help create a society which strengthens the esteem of both women and men by portraying them in an authoritative manner? Or do we stick with the status quo, and risk being surpassed by societies we’ve long regarded as less progressive and enlightened than our Dutch ideal?