If society doesn’t change, how can the media change society? Although change is inevitable, media practitioners can exert significant influence on changing gender roles in society for the better. Stereotypical character roles women have portrayed in advertisements can uphold unethical advertising practices, such as discrimination and vilification based on gender. Discrimination is the “unfair, unfavorable or less favourable treatment to one person or a group” and vilification “humiliates, intimidates, and incites hatred towards, contempt for, or ridicule of one person or a group of people” (Giles, Whelan, 2009, p.5). In 2019, online booking company Sportsbet pulled an advertisement titled ‘Foolproof’, for contravening the Australian Association of National Advertisers Code of Ethics (AANA) Section 2.1. This section of the code states “advertising or marketing communications shall not portray people or depict material in a way which discriminates against or vilifies a person or section of the community on account of gender”. The Ad Standards panel ruled the Sportsbet advertisement “conveys the overall impression that women who enter beauty pageants are unintelligent, which is a negative stereotype, and in the panel’s view this incites ridicule of these women” (Wilkinson, 2019). The stereotype of blonde women and women who participate in beauty pageants as being incompetent, perpetuates an inaccurate representation, a stereotypical ideology and a limited perception of women that fall into this category. Discrimination and vilification results in harm in a wider context, with negative ramifications such as gender inequality in the workforce, as well as physical, mental and social suffering.
There is currently no government legislation in place to regulate sexist advertising, only ethical codes to ensure advertisements are decent, honest and truthful. The socio-ethical implications advertising practitioners need to consider are to assist in preventing the serious repercussions discrimination and vilification in advertising can have on blonde females and beauty pageant contestants.
Portraying blonde females and beauty pageant contestants as unintelligent reflects the gender inequalities entrenched in the workforce today. “Around one-third of employers have no female key management personnel (KMPs) or general managers at all” (McKenna, 2017). Unconsciously categorising groups based on aspects such as gender and hair colour alone are a result of the preconceived notions individuals have developed overtime, from places such as mass media. The common stereotype of beauty pageant girls is “a focus on
physical beauty, and the expectation of unintelligent answers when interview time comes” (Myler, 2012). This is a distorted view as “most of them are incredibly sharp, intelligent, confident, and poised” (Cobert, 2020). Move ad description up towards top of essay The Sports bet ad depicted a blonde female in a beauty pageant struggling to answer a question about why the Sports bet iPhone app is so easy to use and the male host awkwardly stood by raising his eyebrows. The word ‘Foolproof’ was stamped over the woman’s neck suggesting she was incapable of using a simple app. A male voice over was used to say ‘foolproof, which “reinforces the cultural view that men are authorities and women depend on men to tell them what to do” (Wood, 1994).
Furthermore, Beddow (2011) found blondes have been featured in magazines at a much higher rate than images of models with other hair colours particularly in the magazine Playboy, which uses models purely for sexual appeal. In advertising “the odds of women being depicted at home are approximately 3.5 times higher than for men” and one study found women were shown in “non-working roles in 92.3 per cent of the US adverts, 90.7 per cent of the Swedish adverts, and 91.5 percent of the Dutch adverts” (Patterson, O’Malley & Story 2009). Although blonde females may be overrepresented in men’s lifestyle magazines, they are underrepresented in working roles in comparison to male counterparts. “Only 5% of CEOS of the London Financial Times Stock Exchange are blondes” (Beddow, 2011) and this study also found the participants “typically considered blondes as less intelligent and competent than people with other hair colours” and therefore blondes might have been seen as not successful in a situation that favours those traits” (Beddow, 2011). If blonde beauty pageant women are portrayed in the media as poor decision makers and incapable of taking on responsibility, this is reciprocated in the workforce. Being evaluated purely based on hair colour furthers the struggle to gain particular job positions in comparison to men. The underrepresentation and vilification of blondes reflected in mainstream media causes negative repercussions, contributing to the gender inequalities they experience in the workforce
Pervasive media and advertising messages of females represent false ideologies that can contribute to a myriad of health issues. “Advertising reflects society in a distorted fashion, calling attention to and exaggerating some aspects of our lives and hiding others” (Patterson, O’Malley, Story, 2009). Idealising or underrepresenting images of females may cause consumers to compare themselves to this and result in negative body image and insecurities. Although the Sportsbet ad was not deemed as using sexual appeal, the sexist and degrading representation of the female has consequences on its own. Poor body image, low self-worth, depression, anxiety and the violent treatment of women can be a result of sexist advertisements. The negative stereotypes associated with blondes can affect their self-efficiency and blonde women have even gone to the extent of dying their hair just to be taken seriously by people. If advertising is teaching women to be passive whereas boys are encouraged to be authoritative and autonomous, it is not encouraging women to be independent and make choices of their own. Whilst women continue to be shown “as sex objects who are usually young, thin, beautiful, passive, dependent and often incompetent and dumb” (Wood, 1994), it will continue to play a profound role in shaping society’s attitudes and expectations of gender roles. In some cases, women are stuck in physically or emotionally abusive relationships and feel unable to defend themselves due to the power men hold over them. Stereotypical representations of women in advertising distorts what society perceives as normal. Advertising has information embedded in it and “women are likely to attend to and use media as guides for their attitudes and behaviours” (Patterson, O’Malley, Story, 2009). It is paramount that advertising represents women in a fair and ethical manner to improve their health and wellbeing.
Discrimination and vilification against gender presents practical implications for media practitioners. Aside from the severe influence advertisements have on societal expectations, advertisements found to be in breach of the code of ethics will result in the advertiser having to modify or withdraw a project that they have invested a lot of time and money in to create. Advertising practitioners can “potentially play a transformative role in promoting gender equality through the use of diverse, realistic and respectful gender portrayals” (Barr, McKenzie, 2019). Eradicating limited perceptions and unrealistic representations of minority groups in society will help to reduce gender-based discrimination. Women in creative and leadership positions in the advertising industry is currently lacking. Having male dominated positions is an inequality in itself, however having more diversity in both genders working in this field may reduce the sexist stereotypes conveyed through advertising. Being proactive rather than reactive to issues will help to create the change in society that is needed to improve the inequalities in gender. Advertisements are often being driven by profitability which results in lack of social responsibility. For society to shift their negative perceptions of blonde women and beauty pageants, the media needs to reflect this change. “The Code of Ethics and complaints process should both recognise the power of advertising to shape culture, not just reflect it” (Barr, McKenzie 2019). Advertising can be a platform for social change if companies persistently communicate positive messages to consumers in which do not discriminate or vilify.
Advertising practitioners have a responsibility to be ethical in their creative choices. More positive gender portrayals that accurately align with people in society, will reduce the impact on women subjected to the ridicule. Consequentially, “adverts which portray women equally, where the presentation is respectful, appropriate, and delivers a positive role model, improves purchase intention by 26% among all consumers and 45% among women” (Middleton, 2017). Acknowledging the ethical complexity of gender stereotypes is a consideration that should be taken at the beginning of planning any advertising campaign. Abiding by the AANA code of ethics ensures more vigilance towards valued consumers and prevents future advertisements from discriminating and vilifying specific groups in society.