Women account for 50% of the US population and 70–80% of consumer purchases, but when it comes to their portrayal in advertising, it is shockingly one-dimensional. Women are more likely to be featured in revealing clothing than they are to be portrayed as leaders, professionals, or mothers. Despite greater on-screen time than men, their speaking time is significantly lower. Even in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which galvanized marketers to deliver gendered-balanced ads and heightened their awareness of sexist stereotypes, brands still struggle to eradicate negative portrayals of women.
To learn more about the challenges marketers face in creating gender-balanced and unstereotyped ads, we analyzed 2,738 ads that contained people from 122 brands across four verticals (CPG, beauty, alcohol, and pharmaceuticals). All ads were deployed in 2020 in the US on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube. Using computer vision, optical-character recognition, and speech-to-text technology, we measured the frequency of visual, audio, and contextual cues, including sex, activity, appearance, and more.
Based on our analysis, three macro areas for improving the way women and men are represented in advertising stood out:
Below are 11 insights that marketers can use to evaluate their own creative content.
Previous research by the Geena Davis Institute found that male characters were seen more (56% compared to 54%) and heard 1.5X more (60% compared to 40%) than female characters, with CPG ads the main exception (55% screen time and 52% speaking time for women). The brands in our analysis had greater female screen time in their ads than those in the GDI study.
Across all the verticals analyzed, 3 out of 4 ads featured women. Men, by comparison, featured in 1 of every 2 ads. Ads were more likely to feature men when both sexes appeared on screen together.
Ads featured more women in leadership roles than men (3.44% compared to 1.25%). This was largely due to Covid, which saw brands champion Black doctors, leading to a 13x increase in Black women cast in leadership roles.
Approximately 7% of ads cast men as a primary caregiver (vs 3.6% featured women as a primary caregiver). We hypothesize the #MeToo movement prompted marketers to challenge traditional, masculine stereotypes and that parental roles are perhaps some of the easiest biases to challenge (i.e. unstereotyping ads by replacing 'mother characters' with 'father characters').
Brands have made progress: there are not only more women in ads, but more importantly women portrayed as leaders. In our past analysis of racial stereotypes, we found that increased representation leads to more stereotyping. However, this was not the case when analyzing ads for gender representation. Possible reasons for this are that marketers have had to be conscious of gender stereotypes for longer (the #metoo movement has been vocal since 2017), and there are now more female marketers in management helping enforce progressive gender portrayals.
There remain 3 key areas for improvement:
Ads featuring men peaked in September at 72.8%, a small increase over the number of female characters (69.6%). Further analysis (see our analysis of ethnic diversity in ads), suggests that this could be due to the rise in sporting events (i.e. NBA Playoffs, the start of the NFL season).
Any assumption that sports are watched predominantly by men should be questioned as various reports from Nielsen show that more women are watching more sports (e.g. women have accounted for approximately 47% of total Super Bowl viewership from 2014 to 2018).
Women continue to be cast as background characters: 21% of ads featured men in speaking roles, compared to 13% for women. Men were about 4x more likely to be cast in speaking roles than women during months that featured sporting occasions: March (March Madness), August and September (NBA Playoffs).
Ads featured men and women working in gender-traditional professions. For example, men were more likely to be cast as policemen, army personnel, farmers, builders, and delivery men, while women were cast as makeup artists, dentists, or with a desk job. Men are roughly 2x more likely to be cast in professional roles in ads than women (11.6% compared to 6.2%).
4.8% of ads featured a person cleaning. Of those ads, 66.5% were women and 33.5% were men. Ads featured more men cooking than it did women (3.6% compared to 2.5%), but women were more likely to be shown cooking in the kitchen and serving food, while men were more likely to cook at the barbeque.
Unrealistic body ideals can reinforce negative body perceptions, and the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) states that responsible advertising "must ensure that models are not depicted in a way which makes them appear underweight or unhealthy." Given the global nature of the brands analysed, we expected similar standards to be upheld in the US market.
To see how ads depicted different body sizes, we classified body size using the Stunkard Figure Rating Scale -- a visual scale of 9 outlined figures increasing in size from 1 (very thin) to 9 (very obese). We followed classifications from previous research: underweight (figures 1 and 2), appropriate body weight (figures 3 & 4) overweight (figures 6, 7, 8, & 9). Based on previous studies, we hypothesized that:
According to the CDC, over 73% of US adults are overweight or obese, but only 7% of ads featured overweight men and women.
Ads featuring overweight people increased when advertisers promoted their products using real people looking down the camera, talking about the benefits of the product. Digging deeper into the data, we found that beauty brands (e.g. Dove, Vaseline, etc.) were more likely to use testimonial style-ads.
Women in ads continue to show dramatically more skin than men. Significant change is required because "hypersexualized models of femininity in the media affect the mental, emotional and physical health of girls and women on a global scale."
Despite the #MeToo movement, women are, on average, twice as likely to be portrayed as sexualized characters than in leadership roles (7.5% compared to 3.9%) than in professional roles (6.2%) or as mothers (3.6%).
Increased UGC (identified as an unbranded, text-free image featuring a model holding the product) led to increased portrayals of women as sexual objects in alcohol ads. This is not to suggest that women are more likely to sexualize themselves, but rather to draw attention to the fact that a decision was made to invest in these images as ads.
In short, the advertising industry has made some progress when it comes to improving female representation and inclusivity in their ads (The Good). Women feature more heavily in ads than we anticipated and are more likely to be cast in leadership roles than men. The #MeToo movement galvanized brands to challenge traditional ideas of masculinity and this is reflected in the ads we saw: more men feature helping around the house and as loving, capable fathers. Brands like Dollar Shave Club avoided typical portrayals of muscular male models, instead, using real men in a wide variety of body sizes.
Brands are still perpetuating negative gender stereotypes (The Bad). The advertising industry continues to cast characters in traditional gender roles. Men dominate professional roles and women are more likely to feature doing certain domestic activities like cleaning. Even with fewer on-screen appearances, men feature in more speaking roles.
Worse, brands continue to sexualize women in their ads (The Ugly). Despite the heightened consequences of sexual objectification, women continue to be featured in revealing clothing or partially, and gratuitous nudity in ads remains a problem. Despite the progress, there’s much work to be done, and that work remains critical.
Sign up to get notified when we release our latest analysis and trends of creative decisions. Coming up next: Are brands talking about climate change?
To see if our technology can help you on your mission to unstereotype your ads, get in touch.