Dear David

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I’m a big fan of Peep show, so obviously, I find David Mitchell (Mark), incredibly funny.

What I’m not such a big fan of, and what I certainly don’t find funny, are Mitchell’s attitudes towards gender stereotyping within the Advertising and Marketing Industry. Mitchell’s article in the Guardian, in response to the Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) report ‘Depictions, Perceptions and Harm’, and new, stricter regulations on gender stereotyping, argues that in this world filled with extremism, economic uncertainty, terror, war and natural disasters, a bit of harmless stereotyping never hurt no one.

Yes, the world is full of big problems, of a huge scale, where lives are in danger, and people terrified. But, change has got to start somewhere. With such an attitude where would we be now? The devastating act of terrorism on the 9/11/2001 didn’t stop the 2003 Paternity leave bill being passed that finally acknowledged that men might possibly, maybe, want to spend a bit of time with their kids and family after the birth. Nor did the Falklands war and economic recession of the 1980’s stop a law being passed that allowed women to spend their money in English pubs without the worry of them being legally refused. Without both of those reasonably small changes in a world full of turmoil, men wouldn’t be given the right to spend, albeit limited, time with their family, and I wouldn’t be able to drink £1.75 pints on student night.

In relation to advertising, the same thinking applies. The prevalence of gender stereotyping within the industry is a great mystery to me. Who gets to decide that Radox’s Fennel and Fresh sea minerals shower gel is only ‘For men’? Someone please tell me what is so exclusively masculine about sea minerals? Would the world come crashing down if a male bought a shower gel with, god forbid, lavender in it?

From a young age, we are socialised into rigid gender specific roles through Canalisation; buying gender specific goods e.g. mini kitchens and babies for girls, and tools and Lego for boys (Ann Oakley, 1981). So, youngsters are (generally) told that women do the cooking and family workload, whilst men should know how to use a hammer and have the brains to build stuff, which is continuously reinforced throughout our lives. Don’t even get me started on the good old nonsensical pink vs blue debate.

The sexualisation of women within advertising is one of the most outrageous and insulting displays of gender stereotyping within the industry. Apparently, sex sells, particularly for a male focused target audience. But why is this? Is it because we’re stuck in the dark ages whereby we think men control the finances, and so we should appeal to them in everything we advertise (except cleaning products of course)? Or, because we assume that they’re sex hungry animals and that’s pretty much all that goes on in their brain alongside football and beer?

The 2006 rebranding and advertising of Diet Coke to Coke Zero in the UK in a (highly successful) attempt to attract more males to the idea of sugar free drinks, drew upon almost every gender stereotype one could imagine. With the whole advert based around the idea of ‘why can’t all the good things in life come without the downsides?’, initially talking about Coke Zero being great and sugar-free, but, quickly goes on to insult men and women by saying, ‘Like girlfriends without five year plans’ and ‘bras without the fumbling’. As though the only thing that could possibly make a man buy Coke Zero is thinking about tits. This was just 11 years ago. That’s all.

Whilst in 2017 this kind of advert (hopefully) would make men and women alike appalled, there are still undertones of gender stereotyping in many adverts you see. The Marsh & Parsons Ad, ‘period property and a modern extension’ on the tube is another vile example.

The ASA’s research produced findings suggesting there is a cumulative effect, whereby, in isolation, a few stereotypes don’t seem so bad, a bit of cleaning here and a male failing to perform a simple parental task there, but they do build up a strong message over time about how children and adults should look or behave because of their gender. Even worse, key findings highlighted that reinforcing and perpetuating traditional gender roles can lead to suboptimal outcomes for groups in terms of personal development and professional attainment.

That’s why I welcome, with open arms, the ASA’s attempt to recognise that good advertising should be 100% free from the confines of gender stereotyping.

With a U.S president who’s arguably inherently sexist (‘grab her by the pussy’), and the fact men can still only take 2 weeks Paternity leave, why shouldn’t we challenge the things that we see every day? Why shouldn’t we challenge gender stereotypes? Why shouldn’t we challenge ourselves, and what we consider ‘the norm’? Let’s challenge our audiences to challenge themselves. What infiltrates our daily lives, on the tube, on T.V, on Facebook, emails and on the side of a bus, bombards us and young people with the ideals of who we should be, and what product we need to fulfil that warped perception of masculine and feminine identities. Change that, and who knows what else will change. Maybe, David Mitchell’s mind.

Author: Ruby-Mae Radcliffe