Brands, embrace gender evolution or get used to being irrelevant

One year on from ASA’s ban on ads depicting harmful gender stereotypes, research suggests marketers need to embrace the increasing complexities of gender.

LGBTQ+ sign in a bar

Back in 2017, a TV advert for Aptamil baby milk formula depicted baby boys growing up to become engineers and mountain climbers, while a baby girl grew up to be a ballerina.

Was it a cute, harmless advert? Or, for whatever reason, was Aptamil perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes?

Market research subsequently conducted by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) determined that it was, at least to a degree, the latter.

ASA found that some parents “felt strongly about the gender-based aspirations shown in the advert, specifically noting the stereotypical future professions of the boys and girls shown.

“These parents queried why these stereotypes were needed, feeling that they lacked diversity of gender roles and did not represent real life.”


But Aptamil is far from the only brand to have used gender stereotyping in advertising. There have been countless examples over the decades.

A report published by ASA in 2017 concluded that gender-biased advertising could have a negative impact on consumers, and that new regulations were required to prevent them. 

Those regulations came into force on June 14, 2019, declaring that “advertisements must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence”.

In the UK, a brand can no longer show a man struggling with simple household chores. Nor can it depict a woman driver struggling to park a car.

As the regulations were introduced, Shahriar Coupal, director of the Committees of Advertising Practice, commented: “Harmful gender stereotypes have no place in UK advertisements. Nearly all advertisers know this, but for those that don’t, our new rule calls time on stereotypes that hold back people and society.”

Larry Lotch, co-CEO of digital marketing agency The Brains, however, believes the majority of consumers have no problem with how advertising has typically portrayed males and females.

He says: “The ‘harmful gender stereotypes’ are only thought of and agreed upon by a minority of gender-obsessed media, academia and political types when most of the general public is totally unphased by the depictions of men and women doing all sorts of things that reflect the reality of life. 

“I, personally, have no problem with an individual company doing its own advertising along whatever moralistic lines it chooses, but to force everyone else to conform to their moralistic ideas is exactly what Conservative Christians were trying to do in the 50s.

“All these companies going along with this are just covering themselves and, as soon as it’s no longer in vogue, they’ll jump ship and revert to the next fad.”

But Ella Smillie, gender stereotyping project lead, Committees of Advertising Practice, says her organisation’s own research has shown that harmful gender stereotypes in ads contribute to how people see themselves and their role in society.  

“They can hold some people back from fulfilling their potential, or from aspiring to certain jobs and industries, bringing costs for individuals and the economy,” she says.

And people’s perception of ‘gender’ is changing, as a recent study by industry analyst firm Forrester found, suggesting that there is much more that brands need to take into consideration when it comes to gender – the ‘gender evolution’.

According to Forrester, a majority of consumers today reject what they perceive as outdated cultural constructs of gender. And where consumers go, so do brands. 

The analyst firm’s report examined how gender is evolving, what that means for marketers, and suggested ways in which companies could create a whole-brand experience that’s authentic and relevant.

The report was penned by Dipanjan Chatterjee, a VP and principal analyst at Forrester, where he leads the brand strategy practice. 

He states: “When Prince opened for the Rolling Stones in 1981 dressed in black bikini briefs and thigh-high stockings, he was met with a volley of bottles and homophobic slurs. 35 years later, Asia Kate Dillon’s character on Showtime’s award-winning hit show, Billions, announced ‘my pronouns are they, theirs, and them’.”

Today, most consumers reject the gender binary – 52% of Millennials believe that gender is a spectrum and 12% identify as trans or nonconforming. And it’s not just about Asia Kate Dillion (who personally identifies as nonbinary) and their character in Billions. 56% of 13- to 30-year-olds know someone who prefers to be referred to with gender-neutral pronouns. 

“Where the market goes, brands follow, and quickly,” Chatterjee, explains. “Coca-Cola’s 2018 Super Bowl ad featured an androgynous face paired with a gender-neutral pronoun. Earlier this year, MasterCard commissioned a series of rainbow-coloured street signs with identifiers such as nonbinary and pansexual. 

“As business models become ruthlessly agile, no brand can afford cultural irrelevance.”

There can be no doubt that consumption patterns are shifting. Forrester’s study notes that the men’s personal care category, once thought to be an oxymoron unto itself, is expected to be worth £132bn in 2022. And, in 2018, 56% of US males used a facial cosmetic at least once. 

Not only are men now cosmetics buyers – they don’t consider it to be gender-specific – but about 40% of 18- to 22-year-olds have an interest in gender-neutral beauty products.

Outdated sales pitches

Meanwhile, in today’s market, women represent 45% of new car purchases, suggesting dealerships’ gender-skewed sales pitches may be outdated.

And such dated campaigns are faltering, according to Chatterjee. Many brands are tweaking their experiences to shed gender biases, but the most striking examples come from those that execute an about-face, he notes, highlighting Dr Pepper Ten as a classic example.

The fizzy pop brand introduced manliness to diet drinks in a market that it described as “kinda girly” and launched a national campaign in 2011 proudly hailing itself as “not for women”.

The brand has subsequently retreated from that position, due, in part at least, to the realisation that 40% of its consumers were actually women. 

Marketers need to be aware that internal values champion change, Chatterjee explains. 

“Smart CMOs build brands for, and with, employees and internal participants as much as they do for customers and prospects,” he says. “For example, Birchbox changed its site navigation from ‘women’s’ and ‘men’s’ to ‘beauty’ and ‘grooming’.” 

Amanda Tolleson, Birchbox’s chief customer officer, says this came about through “organic conversations with the employees, as these types of changes are about the internal company culture and values as much as they are about the external audience”.

The concept of gender is also becoming more complex, and navigating the topic is not as straightforward as marketers perhaps used to treat it.

Chatterjee believes that marketers, and society in general, has spent decades embracing a “false but cozy binary” to manage that complexity. 

In order to build a gender-relevant brand today, though, Forrester states that marketers need to understand three things:

Gender is not sex

Sex refers to the meaning that society gives to the biological markers, such as chromosomes and genitalia, a person has at birth. Gender is the cultural correlate of sex. In their seminal work on gender, Candace West and Don Zimmerman write that with gender we create “differences between boys and girls and women and men, differences that are not natural, essential, or biological”. 

There’s nothing inherently female about wearing a dress or essentially male about driving a pickup truck, but these actions become gendered when society determines what’s appropriate for men and women.

Gender isn’t binary to many

Marketers who reduce people to labels like ‘male’ and ‘female’ do so at their peril. People of all social and political backgrounds exhibit behaviours that contravene gendered expectations at one time or another. In fact, 76% of female consumers and 71% of male consumers believe that the way they’re portrayed in advertising is completely out of touch. As Guido Palau, who works with designer Marc Jacobs, says, there’s no compelling need for “being a woman or a man when you can be everything and anything in between”.

Gender and sexuality are interrelated.

Conversations about gender and sexuality, in the workplace and in the world of brand communication, are often connected. Just as we’ve witnessed the evolution of gender perceptions, we’ve seen a shift in social expectations regarding sexual preference along gender lines. The short version, for the brand marketer, is that sexuality and gender are complex and interconnected themes. You don’t need to tease them apart, but you do need to know that LGBTQ+ issues will be front and centre in gender-related brand conversations.

Whatever a marketer’s own view on gender might be, it is clear that it is an emotive topic of which there is a lot to be mindful of.

Ultimately, Forrester’s study concludes that marketers should strive to develop a genuine understanding of ‘gender evolution’ to craft experiences that are relevant to their audience and authentic to their core. This, in turn, can help to create authentic, relevant experiences for customers.

In embracing this evolution, brands need to commit, prepare to weather blowback, and put their money where their intentions are.

A whole-brand approach is essential. “This is very different from designing your Pride Month logo,” notes Chatterjee. “Embracing gender evolution can have far-reaching implications for your product, pricing, supply chain, operations, technology and much more.”

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