When It Comes To Cultural Gender Bias, Brands Must Do Better

Deutsch president Kim Getty explores the influence of advertising on gender identity, and how brands can do better.

When It Comes To Cultural Gender Bias, Brands Must Do Better

Last week, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) and the White House announced a new initiative called “#SeeHer” to encourage advertisers, content creators and the media to make content that authentically portrays diverse women and girls. For #SeeHer, the ANA will share toolkits to support the campaign and lay out the roles of partner organizations. This is a step. But it’s just one step of many that Kim Getty, president of agency Deutsch, says that brands and ad agencies can take to better reflect the reality of women and girls in culture.


In her presentation at Cannes Lions called “Men vs Women: Exploring Marketing’s Impact on Gender Bias,” Getty highlighted both the role of advertising in culture, as well as why and how brands can do better. As Geena Davis has told us through her nonprofit See Jane, men outnumber women three to one on family films, a ratio that hasn’t changed since 1946. Only 31% of speaking roles in film are for women, while just 23% of protagonists are women.

Kim Getty

Advertising doesn’t fare much better. Getty said that of all the ads aired during this year’s Super Bowl, less than a third of the acting roles went to women (32%), and 17.5% were speaking roles. They then took the four biggest categories of ad spending in the U.S., which spend $19 billion per year, and looked at the top ads for the top brands in those categories to get a sense of the messages they were putting out into the world. Getty found that advertising is doing only a few percentage points better than our film counterparts with 34% of roles for women.

And while ads may not resonate as strongly as The Force, their impact can be significant. For a moderate campaign Deutsch created for real estate site Zillow last March, the agency found that 72% of Americans saw some part of the campaign, compared to 33% of Americans who saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens. “Twice as many saw our Zillow ads than watched Star Wars this year,” said Getty. “It’s clear that we as marketers and advertisers, are putting an enormous amount of messages out there.”

But we don’t need to live in a world filled with frazzled moms and hapless dads, as depicted in so many ads. Just look at how brands like Under Armour, Nike, and Ram Trucks have used women in their marketing. It’s not just good for women, it’s good for business.

“Under Armour has doubled their business over the last four years, while Ram Trucks has had their best sales year since 2005, and Nike is up 12% year-over-year in women’s training,” said Getty. “These are brands playing a new game and driving their business while doing it. It’s a win-win.”

The thing is, it doesn’t take much. A few simple steps and advertisers can start making the difference.


“We are always on the look out for telling surprising and untold human stories,” says Getty. “And because women have not been the focus or featured in the same way as men have, there are just more untold stories out there to be shared.”

She highlighted recent ads from Glenfiddich, by agency Rokkan, and her own agency’s work with Angel Soft, as examples of taking a familiar storyline and making it something different, and unexpected, just by adding a female perspective.

Her first bit of advice to advertisers was, simply, put her in. “Let’s get more women in our work, plain and simple,” said Getty. “The next time you’re writing or looking at a script, consider what would happen if you changed the name from Jack to Julie. Does the story still work?”

Second, was to depict gender how it is IRL. “Let’s ask our selves when we’re looking at work, does this capture the world as it is today, or are we using dated references?,” she said. “I think sometimes, maybe because we only have 30-seconds, it’s a shortcut to play into outdated gender norms.

“Because women make up nearly half the workforce, when you’re writing a script with a woman in it, assume she works. Just start there. When you’re writing a story for a man, assume he knows how to change a diaper and make dinner. Assume he’s capable, because so many men are awesome and capable. Just start there. So many stories don’t start there. Let’s start with how the world looks today.”

Third, give the audience a little more credit. “We don’t have to hold a mirror up to our audience to help them connect with our brands,” she said. “For years there was an adage that you could show a man in an ad and a mixed audience would connect, but if you showed a woman it wouldn’t work the same way. That’s just not true anymore. Men are welcoming women into their brand tribes and advertising has to do the same.”


Finally, Getty made a call to brands so often chasing the latest and greatest in technology, to put an equal effort into moving culture forward. “For all of our desire to be cutting edge, to use tech first, to get the attention of the 14-year-old Snapchatter, let’s get men and women right,” she said. “Let’s take matters into our own hands, and let’s do it because it’s smart, will make our work more effective, and allow us to tell better stories. A woman is the forerunner candidate to lead the U.S. in the next election. If we’re confident that a woman can lead the free world, shouldn’t we be comfortable making her a star in one of our ads? Letting a woman do the voiceover? I think so. We need to bring advertising up to speed.”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.