Since the inception of the internet in the early 90s, a lot of work has been done to tame the once lawless desert and to challenge tired gender stereotypes that reinforce norms and expected behaviours that were all too prevalent on the early interweb.
More and more advertising companies are stepping up to reflect the multifaceted society we live in, releasing commercials that reflect gender roles and gender identification as a spectrum. Just check out this Christmas advert that was released by Spanish whiskey company J&B back in 2022:
And yet, while we have amazing ads like this one going viral online, magazines, TV, billboards and more recently, a number of social media ads are still playing a huge part in reinforcing what’s considered ‘traditional’ gender roles for men and women.
Analysis company CreativeX just released research figures gathered using AI, looking at countless commercials from huge brands. It found that traditional gender stereotyping is still everywhere—in fact, it’s becoming more prevalent.
CreativeX analysed content from TikTok, YouTube, Snapchat, Facebook and Twitter across 2022, gathering a whopping 10,885 ads featuring over 20,000 people from food and beverage, healthcare, and alcohol brands.
The facts? The number of women portrayed in domestic or family settings has more than doubled in the last year. It’s gone up to 66 per cent of the 10,000 ads analysed in 2022, compared to just 32 per cent in 2021.
Looking around, you might’ve assumed that representation problems were slowly being redressed. Back in December 2018, the UK’s main advertising regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) gave agencies six months to eliminate stereotypes.
After one too many explicitly stereotypical ads went viral, it officially became unlawful to utilise gender stereotypes to sell products. Remember Protein World’s ‘Are you beach body ready?’ Summer campaign fail? Ick.
In 2019, The Royal Air Forces’ ‘No Room for Clichés’ campaign highlighted that “every role in the RAF is open to everyone.” Then, in March 2022, you might’ve spotted the ‘Imagine’ poster campaign in the cinema, on social media or at a bus stop, highlighting everyday bias.
Unfortunately, however, these incremental changes didn’t have a big enough impact, because the percentage of women being portrayed in professional settings decreased from 16 per cent in 2021, to just 7 per cent in 2022.
And then there’s the issue of skin tone bias. Across all ads CreativeX analysed, women with darker skin tones were found to feature 80 per cent less than women with the lightest skin tones. These same women also appeared 58 per cent less frequently in professional settings than lighter-skinned women.
At the same time, multi-faceted brands are increasingly leaning towards impactful Pride campaigns and equality for all. Household names like McDonald’s, LEGO and Tinder proudly fly the rainbow flag and release Pride-related products and initiatives come June. Although, there’s also an argument to be made that it isn’t good enough for these brands to simply participate in ‘rainbow-washing’ when it’s convenient to their sales strategy.
TikTok, Meta, Snap Inc. and YouTube make strides to support their respective communities with tailor-made features. But, at the same time, they’re running ads that back up the very stereotypes they’re hoping to break down.
Anyone who spotted the recent outrage sparked by beer company Bud Light’s partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney can see that the fight to end gender bias and inequity within both advertisements and society is far from over.
On top of all this, trends on the very platforms purporting to support women and other communities aren’t helping. TikTok is full to the brim of aspirational “stay-at-home girlfriend” videos which depict women glamourising being financially dependent and satisfied through servitude.
Feminism is 100 per cent based on the right for a woman to choose her path in life, but it’s dangerous to reaffirm the idea that women are best suited to staying home and “taking care” of their male partner while they go out and “get that bread.”
SCREENSHOT recently spoke to Sofie Birkin, a queer artist and illustrator who’s made it her mission to tackle gender stereotyping, ableism and skin tone bias when lending her talents to global ad campaigns for brands.
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Birkin wants everyone who identifies as a woman to feel represented and seen. She’s worked with the likes of Adidas, Benefit Cosmetics, Apple, Nike, Google and even the United Nations—encouraging clients to champion images which don’t diminish women to reductive stereotypes.
The expert explained: “As an artist frequently working with brands, the uptick in the romanticisation of women performing domestic labour concerns me but doesn’t surprise me.”
Birkin continued: “In the last few years we’ve seen capitalist production repackaged as essential to glamorous, algorithm-pleasing micro identities. You can be ‘that girl’, a ‘clean girl’ or (god help us) a boss bitch, as long as you’re optimising your mind, body and spirit to be as (aesthetically) productive as possible.”
With our attention pulled in so many directions on a daily basis, it’s easy to understand the draw of simple pleasures and calming daily routines. Birkin noted: “Hustle culture is exhausting—it’s no wonder there’s a hunger for simplicity, mindfulness and a slower pace of life. The worrying side effect of this is bad actors exploiting that desire to push a regressive agenda. Making your boyfriend a packed lunch every day is now ‘leaning into your divine feminine’ and brands capitalise on that with tips like ‘Here’s 10 cute kitchen storage solutions to help you do it!’”
Reflecting on how brands have used this technique previously, the illustrator mused: “In the pursuit of an easier life we’ve ended up right back at having to level up our reality through our purchases. It’s exactly what happened in the post-war mid-century period. Burned out and traumatised from the demands of wartime, companies found ways to commodify women’s human need for peace and control into shiny kitchen gadgets and processed foods to feed their families with.”
There are however some brands out there finding ways to creatively market to women without being condescending. One example would be the campaign Birkin worked on with women’s razor brand Billie in 2021.
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Reminiscing on the campaign, Birkin recalled how she ended up “illustrating a queer Rapunzel with a shaved head and magnificent armpit hair!”
In terms of looking to the future, Birkin wants to see companies prioritising “critical awareness of the cultural moment we’re experiencing,” and focus on giving “creative freedom to artists and photographers who are creating empowering, nuanced and inclusive images of women.”
Where does my plastic water bottle go once I’m done with it? It’s a fleeting question that pops into my mind when taking out the bins. It’s akin to ‘Where does our water go once it’s down the drain?’ or ‘How do they manage to put the orange jam in the Jaffa Cakes so perfectly every single time?’ But then, like a shower thought—as swiftly as it enters my brain, it’s gone again. I’ll be the first to admit, I haven’t given such an important and complex issue the attention it deserves until recently. Naively, I have trusted the UK government, which claims to be the “global leader” in tackling plastic pollution, to ethically dispose of my plastic waste.
A recent report from Greenpeace suggests otherwise, unveiling the inadequacies in our plastic recycling system. Globally, more than 90 per cent of all plastic waste has never been recycled. In the UK, just 10 per cent of our plastics are recycled on this small, rainy island. The rest is, quite literally, dumped in other countries—having a detrimental impact on wildlife, our oceans, local communities and, not to mention, humanity as a whole.
The investigation from Greenpeace, released on 17 May 2021, found that Turkey has become the largest destination for Britain’s plastic waste. Investigating 10 sites across Southern Turkey, in its latest report, Thrashed, Greenpeace found plastics from major UK supermarkets burned or dumped. Plastic waste was also found in waterways, floating downstream and washing up on the Meditarian coast.
Investigators found British plastic products dumped in roads, fields and waterways abroad. Prior to 2017, China was the key target for UK plastic waste, however since plastic exports were banned by the Chinese government later that year, Turkey has become the UK’s largest, most recent target.
And the problem is only getting worse. The exports of plastic waste to Turkey have increased approximately 17 fold in the last 5 years. In 2016, the UK exported 12,000 tons of plastic to Turkey. In 2020, that number increased to 209,642 tones, equating to around 40 per cent of all UK plastic waste.
The issue of exporting a vast majority of our plastics to countries like Turkey is that it can be detrimental for those countries’ own recycling systems. “As this new evidence shows, plastic waste coming from the UK to Turkey is an environmental threat, not an economic opportunity. Uncontrolled imports of plastic waste do nothing but increase the problems that exist in Turkey’s own recycling system.” Temiz Atas from Greenpeace Mediterranean told the BBC.
The findings have led Greenpeace to urge the UK government to enact the environmental bill and use their powers to ban all plastic waste exports. The proposal also demands an immediate ban on all plastic waste to exports to countries outside of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)—as well as a ban on mixed plastic waste to OECD countries such as Turkey.
This is an issue that is not solely tied to the UK—taking a step back reveals the urgent crisis of plastic pollution is in fact a grave global issue. Other countries across the continent have also designated Turkey as their preferred plastic dump. According to The Guardian, 241 lorryloads of plastic waste make their way into Turkey from European countries every single day—that’s a 20-time increase since 2016. The shocking volume of plastic piled on Turkey has led Greenpeace to warn Turkey was becoming Europes’ “largest plastic waste dump.”
According to the UK and EU rules, plastic waste should not be exported to countries unless it is going to be recycled. However, Turkey’s recycling rate, despite being the largest destination for UK waste plastic, is just 12 per cent, the lowest of any OECD member. Likewise, the dramatic impact of plastic waste is not only detrimental to our environment and oceans—last year, Interpol claimed that the huge increase in plastic waste in Turkey was causing an explosion in the illegal waste trade, which has been reported to cause the kind of violence usually associated with organised crime.
It’s easy to feel helpless in a situation like this. It’s like watching a barn burn with no water or fire extinguisher—year on year, the blaze is only getting bigger (like the amount of plastic being exported but not responsibly recycled). Unless we suddenly ditch plastics altogether, there is no black-and-white solution to this problem. However, using your power as a citizen by donating to organisations like Greenpeace and signing petitions to pressure the government into introducing sustainable policies will definitely help.
Also, it’s a no-brainer but cut down plastic usage in your daily life. Get yourself a reusable water bottle, avoid plastic straws like the plague and next time you’re shopping, ask yourself whether you really need the plastic bag. Do you really need that extra plastic? Because the planet definitely doesn’t.