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Yep, Even Brand Mascots Are Guilty Of Gender And Racial Bias

A new study by The Geena Davis Institute On Gender In Media and The Jel Sert Company examines how women and people of color are represented in the marketing of top-selling products.

Yep, Even Brand Mascots Are Guilty Of Gender And Racial Bias

Quick: name the first five brand mascots that come to your head. Odds are that most of them were male. Mr. Clean, Kool-Aid Man, Tony the Tiger, Mr. Peanut, Michelin Man, Jolly Green Giant, Ronald McDonald, Toucan Sam, Pillsbury Doughboy, Snap, Crackle, and Pop–all dudes.

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A new study by The Geena Davis Institute On Gender In Media and The Jel Sert Company called”Mascots Matter” examines how women and people of color are represented in the marketing mascots of top selling products, and the results are about what you might expect. The study surveyed the 500 best-selling consumer product categories, identifying 1,096 products with mascot character representations.

The categories of mascots included humans (celebrities), humanoids (like talking M&Ms), animals (like Tony the Tiger), or other characters that can be classified as a “being.” It found that male mascots outnumber female mascots two-to-one (67.1% compared to 31.4%). One-in-four (25.4%) female mascots are presented as gender stereotypes, significantly more than male mascots (15.9%). Female mascots are half as likely to be shown as commanding (possessing authority) than male mascots (22.9% compared to 14.5%). Male mascots are seven times more likely to be shown as funny than female mascots (18.4% compared to 2.6%).

This is the first study of its kind on marketing brand mascots, and Geena Davis says she was surprised by just how many of them there actually were. “We wanted to get the overarching picture of gender and ethnic diversity in how brands use mascots, and also look at some of their characteristics and qualities like how active they are, how funny they are, what their physical appearance is like, and things like that,” says Davis.

[Image: courtesy of Otter Pops]
The study is a result of The Jel Sert Company using the Institute as a consultant on its development of four new mascots for the Otter Pop brand, and its goal for overall gender parity among its mascots. Company president Ken Wegner says he was inspired by the Geena Davis Institute’s studies on the TV and film industry, and saw a connection between that and its brand characters.

“It just seemed like a perfect alignment between our goals and their work,” says Wegner. “They advised us as we finalized our new characters, and in making sure the new female characters were empowered.”

Race and brand mascots can be a bit tougher to spot, given many aren’t actually human, but it can still have an impact. Just look at Aunt Jemima or Frito-Lay’s Frito Bandito from back in 1967. More recently, Kellogg’s was torched for an illustration on the Corn Pops cereal box featuring dozens of characters at a mall, with the only Pop of color being the janitor pushing a floor polisher. And despite Donald Glover and Atlanta doing its part, according to the new study, people of color constitute 38% of the U.S. population, but only 15.2% of brand mascots.

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“I was surprised how few mascots of color there are,” says Davis. “I’m used to seeing low numbers in any media, but only 2.9% of mascots were African-American. Wow, what are we doing? How does that happen?”

Davis says the numbers reflected in the new report largely mirror those of similar studies TV and movies. The Institute last year presented a study with agency JWT on gender bias in advertising overall. And while it’s easy to chuckle at the influence of a talking Tiger hawking cereal, it’s these characters who are often the first brand influencers of any kid’s life.  “With little kids seeing these, it just completes the circle of the picture we’re giving to kids, which is that males are important and funny, and in the case of mascots, they have the authority to tell you what’s good or not,” says Davis. “We’re saturating them with the message that girls aren’t important and not to be listened to.”

So how should marketers and advertisers respond to these findings? Davis says she’d offer up the same advice she gives to people creating TV shows or movies for kids: Before you shoot it, before you draw it, you should do a gender and diversity pass. One of the best ways to do that is to actually have more than one woman and person of color on the team. “We can just notice things even the most well-intentioned male creators wouldn’t,” says Davis. “It’s just very important to think about the ramifications of the character.”

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About the author

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

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