Getting gender right: portraying women in Canadian advertising

Scott Megginson
President, Insights Division
Kantar Canada

For the past several years Kantar has shared multiple learnings about ad transferability. Our key insight has been that while ads can be used in more than one country, very few ads that are outstanding in one country are outstanding in another. This is a result of analysis of over 500 exceptional ads (the top five percent of our database) globally that were aired in more than one country. Factors that impact an ad’s ability to travel include brand status in the di­fferent countries, as well as their cultures. Levels of individualism can di­fferentiate cultures, as well as issues like societal gender roles.

Globally, only about a third of ads with exceptional performance continue strongly in other markets, while only about one in ten remains at that peak level of performance. In Canada, many advertisers use ads created in the US to save production budgets, but the larger media budgets are often wasted on creative that doesn’t speak to our local market. Let’s face it, we have a different value system than our neighbours to the south, and by ignoring it we run the risk of damaging the brands we invest so much in building.

Recent data from Kantar Consulting’s Canada Monitor confirmed some key cultural differences between Canada and the US, including areas such as multiculturalist belonging vs. racial identity, lower status orientation (including brand ‘badges’), less appetite for risk taking, and—in particular—a much stronger sense of gender egalitarianism and fluidity. Canadians are much more likely than Americans to say that making money, childcare, and household work are split equally in the household. Over and above our country’s progress towards a broader definition of “family,” Canadians are also thinking in a less binary way, as more Canadians do not agree that “there are two genders: men and women.”

Why then do we see so many ads on the Canadian airwaves with a mother serving dinner to a lounging father or spending a day battling soap smears in a bathroom? Is this how our families work, or how our dual income, target consumers actually live?

“AdReaction: Getting Gender Right,” Kantar’s recent study on the role of gender in advertising, shows that on a global basis, the vast majority of male and female marketers believe that their ads feature positive attainable female role models, but analysis of our global copy-testing databases reveals that only four in ten female consumers feel they are portrayed favourably.

The disconnect isn’t for lack of effort on the part of Canadian marketers. Eighty-two percent of them target males and females together, while 15 percent exclusively target females. However, many base their targeting on stereotypes that don’t reflect reality for many Canadians.

The study also shows that Canadian men and women claim to share household decision making in many categories (with 90% of both men and women sharing decision making responsibilities in grocery buying). While Canadian ads are much more likely to feature women, men are twice as likely to be prominently featured when both genders are present. This misses the mark on the equal roles that women and men play in the customer journey. To reinforce this, an analysis of Kantar’s copy-testing database found that ads featuring both genders were much more impactful in Canada than in the US.

Apart from how prominently women are featured in ads, we also found some creative opportunities. The use of humour improves ad receptivity for both genders in Canada more than any other ad characteristic. However, there is a gap in how males and females receive humour, with women finding ads less funny than men. Part of this could be due to fewer ads featuring funny women, as far fewer humorous ads feature females using humour than males. It could also be due to foreign copywriting that is not in step with Canadian women.

Given the size of media investments over production, there is an opportunity for Canadian advertisers to rethink how ROI could be improved through better human understanding and connection to our local consumers. How families and partnerships are portrayed in markets like the US heartland does not necessarily reflect Canadian values, and we have found that ads with negative engagement can negatively impact brand equity and sales. As we strive to make our companies and management more representative of the diversity that surrounds us, we also have an opportunity to change how our brand messaging is created and who creates it.