It's 2017: Support for feminism feels like it's at an all-time high and there's more diversity in representations of women in Hollywood than ever (though, to be fair, still not enough). And yet, if you looked at nothing but a bunch of ads, you'd probably have a hard time inferring that any amount of progress is happening. That's because, according to new research from J. Walter Thompson New York and The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, there are twice as many male characters in ads than female, the women that are shown are six times more likely to be wearing revealing clothing, and they are mostly in their 20s. Men, on the other hand, are represented at a much wider variety of ages. Also, men are almost twice as likely to be portrayed as funny in ads and 62 percent more likely to be depicted as smart. But wait, there's more! Women are 48 percent more likely to be shown in a kitchen, while men are 50 percent more likely to be at a sporting event.
The study, dubbed "Unpacking Gender Bias in Advertising," surveyed over 2,000 ads produced between 2006 and 2017 from the Cannes archive and concluded that representation of women in advertisements has stayed pretty much the same over the past ten years. What's more, not only are women underrepresented, especially when it comes to speaking parts, but when they are represented, it's done so in a woefully archaic manner that shows them as either sex objects or homemakers.
Depressing? Yes. Surprising? Not really. Ads tend to traffic largely in tropes and stereotypes, which makes sense given that they have a short amount of time to communicate something supposedly significant to the viewer. But, given that women are now over 50 percent of the population, you'd think ad execs might find it worthwhile to take some time to figure out what the multifaceted lives of women really look like, how they see themselves, and what kind of imagery might be meaningful to them.
"By changing the narrative, the images we use, the stories we tell about women, we can dramatically change the way the world values women and how women and girls see themselves," says Madeline Di Nonno, CEO of the Geena Davis Foundation. "It’s not enough to portray more women. We need a more progressive and inclusive representation of women.”
Indeed, it's easy to dismiss ads as no big deal, but research shows that the way people are represented in ads has the potential to affect their self-esteem, much the way it does with movies and TV. A 2011 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research indicated that looking at air-brushed, idealized images of models in advertisements made women feel poorly about their own physical appearance, which, well, duh. Another, produced by the American Psychological Association in 2007, showed that the constant sexualization of women in the media contributed to eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression in girls and women. Finally, a Harvard study from 2011 revealed that gendered language in ads actually helps sustain gender inequality. So, while it's easy to think it is just a stupid ad, unfortunately, there are some real consequences.