Is the portrayal of feminism in advertising widening the gender gap?

by Guest Contributor Rio Cook | March 20, 2019

Author: Rio Cook

Rio Cook
Global Neuroscience Innovations Manager

A recent study I conducted in the Neuroscience team at Kantar looks at the implicit perceptions toward feminism: i.e. what people instinctively associate with that idea. The results make me question whether how feminism is portrayed in advertising might actually be widening the gender gap, rather than closing it.

We’ve recently entered what’s called ‘fourth wave feminism', the era of using social media to express our views on the topic. For me, fourth wave feminism is about respect towards women in all walks of life, and ultimately, empowerment, but my research finds a more complex reality.

The study used Kantar’s Implicit Association technique which allows us to identify what ideas people associated with a topic (or a brand) most quickly, without being able to give time or consideration to their answers. In the industry, this is known as ‘Type 1’ decision making; it’s quick and automatic.

The most interesting findings from the study are:

1. Some women no longer wish to identify as feminists

There are a small group of women who admit they wouldn’t identify as a feminist because of the negative baggage it carries, and the negative portrayal in the media, but overall do agree with the movement and progression towards gender equality.

2. Younger men are more likely to implicitly find feminism intimidating and aggressive

… and as a result, are less likely to support feminism. It makes me wonder if feminism is in danger of ostracising younger men and creating more of a gender divide in society?

3. Men can be feminists too.

This is the main thing I tell anyone when talking about the topic, because without all genders on side, it will be difficult to ever truly achieve gender equality. In fact, older men were more likely to admit to supporting feminism, perhaps because older men are more likely to have wives and daughters, and therefore women’s rights have a more immediate importance to them.

Many advertising campaigns over recent years have been leveraging the topic of feminism to win over the hearts of their (predominantly female) consumers. Dove’s “Real Beauty”, Always’ “Like a girl”, H&M’s “She’s a lady” and of course Gillette’s equivalent, “The best men can be…” campaign. The intention behind all these campaigns is good; to empower men and women to feel comfortable with their gender. But could it be that implicitly they are doing the opposite?

For instance, could ads that focus solely on ‘strength’ be exacerbating negative associations around intimidation and aggression, exhibited by some men?  Always “Like a girl” is a great initiative but the focus is on physical characteristics: running, fighting and throwing. So rather than overturning negative indoctrination, as was intended, some people may be left with the impression that it is about women being the same as men. Sadly, our data revealed around 1/5th of respondents in our study believed that feminism is about either “male oppression”, “radicalism” or “sameness” (the idea the women just want to be the same physically as men).

I look forward to the coming years to see how advertising around feminism evolves, will it start to focus more on ‘Equalism’ rather than just one side of the debate, or will they continue to ingrain our implicit gender bias throughout society? Please share your thoughts.

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  1. Ed C, March 20, 2019
    My quick view is that "modern" advertising that touches on the subject IS doing a good job, in highlighting the problem and trying to fix it. Based on what I've seen, this is the type of communication that gets the pendulum back to where it should be (with men and women "equal" where they should be. I might hypothesize that any anti-feminist notions come from the other stuff out there that may be perceived to move the pendulum too far the other way, which might be perceived to be holding men back in the workplace, cause discrimination, etc.

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