Don't Sell Me Gender

Design, Business
Words by Ennis Cehic
Illustrations by Ben Hammond

The future is not female. The near future, yes. But ultimately, we hope, the future is gender parity - an equitable existence amongst all people. Social movements that strive for gender equality and female empowerment are crucial to achieving this. But there’s another piece to the parity puzzle that has the power to effect massive social change. It’s advertising.

What would this equitable future look like? First of all, it would be a future where the English language isn't overloaded with the dominance of male hierarchies built up over centuries of reign. It’s a future where stereotypes are culturally out of favour and the pay gap is inexistent. It’s a future where women are no longer dictated by oppressive social norms that have been cemented into the fabric of society by our long history of patriarchy. It’s also a future where mass-media communicates inclusivity, celebrates diversity and advertising reflects our progressive, equitable interests rather than our gender or sexuality.

Now if this future can be imagined, how can it be created? Clearly, there are multiple forces at play. Right now, women’s empowerment is at the nucleus of the entire movement. In March 2017, UN Secretary-General António Guterres told women’s rights activists at the United Nations Headquarters in New York that “gender parity at all levels – political, cultural, economic and social – is a ‘central objective’ and must be based on women’s empowerment.” Without the liberation and equality of women’s rights, a post-gender community isn’t possible. But something else will also play a key role in the development of this future; how media and advertising reacts to our gender neutral ideals.

Public support of gender-neutrality is just one of the signs that gender no longer dictates. In this case, large multi-nationals and their advertising arms are listening because they have to. Unilever launched ‘The Unstereotype Alliance’ last year with Facebook, Google, Mars, Microsoft and J&J in order to eradicate outdated stereotypes in advertising. This is a critical step forward. The shift to make us think not from the perspective of our gender, or sexuality, will be heavily influenced by how marketing is conducted because we’re all affected by the advertising of the goods and services we buy - and even the stuff that we don’t. It plays a critical role in what we think of ourselves too. Most of the time we’re not even aware of the messaging that ripples through our subconscious.

Dr Robert Heath noted in his 2012 book 'Seducing the Subconscious: The Psychology of Emotional Influence' that the vast majority of advertising’s influence on us happens subconsciously. Heath’s research has shown how the emotive content of advertising enables it to break through into our subconscious, so that our conscious action is heavily influenced by the subliminal messaging we’re surrounded by. In 1957 Vance Packard’s book ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ revealed that messages exposed subliminally, below our level of perception, were able to increase sales of ice cream and Coke. Today, the ability to uncover consumer insights and behavioural purchasing traits online is far superior - thus making advertising’s ability to persuade even more powerful.


Even the amount of ads that we’re exposed to has dramatically increased. Jay Walker Smith, business trend analyst and executive chairman of the Futures Company, suspects that we've gone from being exposed to about 500 ads a day back in the 1970's to as many as 5,000 a day today. How many of those are typically gendered? Research from JWT New York and The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media indicate that men are 4 times as likely than women to have a presence in ads and have 7 times the speaking time. Additionally, in an analysis of ads released from 2006-2016, women were almost 50% more likely than men to be shown in the kitchen.

This is not surprising. Take for instance, deodorants. The ingredients in all deodorants are the same. They contain a form of aluminium to plug up sweat glands. Yet they are designed and marketed to specific genders, with fragrances (and price tags) that appeal to men and women. Most men simply don’t buy deodorants in pink bottles. I am a man, don't sell me a woman's deodorant. The gendered-marketing of deodorants has made us believe (for far too long) that male and female sweat is different. It isn’t. Human sweat is human sweat.

Imagine if advertising stopped selling us gender where it doesn’t need to. Imagine if instead, it uses its creativity to broaden and enhance the way we see the world, getting us to think, feel and consider the space and issues around us in a new light. Imagine if advertising agencies engaged proactively and acknowledged their sway on our beliefs and opinions.

We should all be aware of the power that advertising possesses. Semanticist and psychologist, S. I. Hayakawa, argued that advertising and poetry have common functions in shaping our lives. They both strive to make objects of experiences symbolic of something beyond themselves. Not much has changed since he made this argument in 1941. Advertising doesn’t just sell products, it aims to change minds and manipulate choice by imbuing meaning. This efficacious power can play an equally crucial part in the development of our future because it has the power to transform our human biases by making us think, feel and visualise things in a more inclusive way.

No doubt, companies and advertising agencies have already started to adapt to the sensitivity of this gender issue. ‘The customer is always right’, might be one of the oldest adages in the book of marketing, but it still reins. If your customer doesn't identify as a he or a she, why would you tell them they are?


"Human sweat is human sweat."


"The global advertising industry that’s projected to be worth approximately $557.99Bn USD in 2018, doesn’t only have a creative opportunity to change history, it has an obligation to be culturally relevant and reflective of the current moral standards."


Coca Cola is one of the most recent conglomerates that advertised gender equality. The multi-national launched a 60 second commercial titled 'The Wonder of Us' at the Super Bowl this year. The ad features multiple voice-overs talking about inclusion while everyone is enjoying all the variants of Coca Cola. While the ad is sixty seconds long, it’s the first line that immediately strikes a chord: "There’s a coke for he, and she, and her, and me, and them." The last word "them", used as singular pronoun, speaks to everyone for which binary gender norms do not apply. When a big conglomerate accepts gender equality and gender non-conformity, it triggers an enormous response throughout the world.

In the UK last year, TV ads that play on stereotypes, make women act or look a certain way, or mock people who fail to conform, are not permitted by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority. This is a small step, but it is a step nevertheless towards making this future of gender parity possible.

In 1994, the advertising agency Deutsch created an ad that made IKEA the first marketer to feature a gay couple in a mainstream commercial. This was groundbreaking because there was no precedent, but it firmly reflected the cultural values of the time that needed to be demonstrated publicly by companies. Today, the force of women's empowerment will continue to rise for the greater good. The global advertising industry that’s projected to be worth approximately $557.99Bn USD in 2018, doesn’t only have a creative opportunity to change history, it has an obligation to be culturally relevant and reflective of the current moral standards. As the art of persuasion, it can transform our deep human biases that are holding us back from actualising the equitable future that we’re all imagining. After all, as advertising pioneer William Bernbach said "the most powerful element in advertising is the truth."


Ennis Cehic is a writer of fiction, poetry and essays. His work has been published in Meanjin, The Lifted Brow, Kill Your Darlings, Going Down Swinging, The Age, Overland and other literary journals. He’s a former advertising creative and currently works as the brand director of Melbourne's beer brand, SAMPLE Brew.