The dangers of images that reinforce stereotypes

Brands and picture libraries are finally waking up to the problem of images that promote stereotypes, and are broadening their repertoires.

Gay Male Couple With Daughter Walking Through Fall Woodland

Marketers are familiar with stock images of ‘the average family’ – nearly always white and heterosexual. But many are moving away from these stereotypes in an effort to avoid discrimination and better reflect society.

Brands are increasingly realising the need to use images that are racially diverse, show same-sex couples and are moving away from using 2.4 children family scenes in advertising campaigns.

Almost half (49%) of marketers have used more racially diverse images over the past 12 months, according to a survey by image provider Shutterstock, shown exclusively to Marketing Week.

The study of 500 UK marketers also shows that 32% have used more images of homosexual couples in the same period.

Diversity is something that can always be improved. [But it] doesn’t necessarily occur to everyone to think in terms of diversity,” says Shutterstock curator Robyn Lange.

“We have conversations with our contributors on a daily basis,” she adds. “We try to keep reminding people that even if we have what we feel is a diverse collection, it can always be better.”

There is a scramble at the moment to make sure that everybody is represented equally.

Rebecca Swift, Getty

Lange says Shutterstock’s reason for curating collections that promote diversity from its catalogue of 100 million images, is an increased demand from marketers who see other brands “connecting with their audience when they go for something that is more diverse”.

The importance of moving away from the status quo in imagery is further highlighted by the fact marketers are avoiding certain images for fear of accusations of discrimination.

Almost half (49%) of marketers say caucasian models do not represent modern day society and 34% believe that not using these types of images will help avoid perceived discrimination.

For heterosexual couples, 24% of marketers say they do not represent modern day society and 33% believe that not using this type of imagery will help avoid perceived discrimination. In addition, 38% of marketers are not using images of heterosexual couples because it does not fit well with the brand message.

“There is a bit of a scramble at the moment to make sure that everybody is represented equally,” according to Rebecca Swift, director of creative planning at iStock by Getty.

The company aims to cut through “generic brand clichés” such as “white, middle class, two kids and mum and dad style photography” and encourage its contributors to represent what they see and how they live their lives rather than what they think marketing and advertising clients want, which leads to them producing content they think is going to sell.

Swift says: “You get into this horrible cycle of producing the same stuff. There are many customers who still use very bland images, so to break out of that takes a lot of energy and that is where we are putting our energy right now.”

Getty’s partnership with the Lean In organisation, which began in 2014 and resulted in a library of images devoted to the powerful depiction of women and girls, has made headway and led to further image diversity projects in the company.

Getty has started working on a partnership with the Women’s Sports Trust and is working to promote the UN’s Global Goals to bring more diversity in the type of content that is used for fundraising and NGO promotions. It is also thinking more about how it represents people of all disabilities, having completed a project with Sane in Australia earlier this year on the way mental health is represented.

Some sectors are performing better than others. The research shows that marketers working in finance are least keen to showcase diversity through imagery. Only 28% have used more racially diverse images in the past 12 months and the same percentage have used more images of homosexual couples.

Lloyds Bank is one brand bucking that trend, having featured same-sex couples in its advertising since 2010. Its latest ad shows a same-sex marriage proposal.

READ MORE: Brands are failing to represent LGBT people in mainstream marketing campaigns

Marketers working in recruitment are most keen to showcase diversity through imagery, with 60% using more racially diverse images over the past 12 months and the same percentage using images of homosexual couples.

It doesn’t necessarily occur to everyone to think in terms of diversity.

Robyn Lange, Shutterstock

However, there are a handful of brands that are doing well in this area, wising up to not only the shift towards representing reality but the possibility of success in doing so.

A new campaign for OXO aims to move away from stereotypes by showing a family where cooking duties are split evenly between the mum and the dad. In larger-scale advertising campaigns there has also been a move towards Gogglebox-type scenarios using real-life families on screen.

READ MORE: The rise of ‘social realism’ in advertising

Importantly, brands that include a more diverse range of people in their advertising will see a sales uplift, according to the results reported after Mars won Channel 4’s Superhumans Wanted competition for £1m-worth of free TV airtime. The brand saw a positive sales uplift that can be correlated with its three ads championing diversity and disability.

For many brands the concern around representing modern day society outweighs the need to fit well with brand messaging, according to the Shutterstock research.

Almost a third (30%) of marketers believe it is more important to represent modern day society, compared to 21% that feel it is more important to promote the brand message.

For images of homosexual couples, for example, 79% of marketers chose modernity compared to 29% for brand messaging. For racially diverse images, 71% chose modernity over 30% for brand messaging, and for non-traditional families, 66% chose modernity over 28% for brand messaging.

Mint brand Peppersmith created a magazine to position oral care as part of a healthy lifestyle.

But the approach should fit a brand’s overall purpose and growth goals. Mint and gum brand Peppersmith created a piece of content that moved away from the generic image of a woman smiling to reveal a set of brilliant white teeth to position oral care as part of a healthy lifestyle.

The brand wanted to target young women so, working with agency Common Industry, created a new independent magazine titled Pepper. The brand “wanted to include women that were doing interesting things but in a way that we admire” rather than “wheel out images of very pretty young women smiling”, according to head of brand Lizzie Bartholomew.

She says: “[We] wanted to do something that is more interesting than that; that’s not reality. Consumers are becoming very savvy about that sort of thing, as they should be.”

It had a limited run of 10,000 copies distributed via select Waitrose stores and gyms and featured Emily Blunt on its cover, along with digital influencers the Collyer Twins, alternative therapist Jody Shield, and Elle magazine’s new content director Alex Holder.

Getty has “been talking about the depiction of women for 10 years and now it’s starting to take on a life of its own,” says Swift. But the process of introducing diversity into the images used by marketers in advertising is “slow moving”.

However, change is starting to happen. “It would worry me if the numbers showed that everyone was moving backwards or people were not searching for diverse imagery at all,” says Lange at Shutterstock.

Swift adds: “It’s snowballing now and starting to take on more importance in people’s day-to-day decisions. I would like to get to a point where everyone is doing this naturally and it doesn’t have to be a special project.”

Hide Comments1 Show Comment
  • carole dennell 7 Mar 2017 at 9:21 pm

    i don’t understand – surely proportional representation should be what advertising companies are aiming for not desperately trying to cover every possible equation in each advert? For example on television why would a 30 second montage show white, black, asian in every shot as over the number of frames this would be non representational of the population. A certain responsibility needs to be exercised otherwise an alien landing in UK would be led to believe that the population is split equally between these groups and not as it is in reality. Rebecca Swift and Robyn Lange need to be careful with what they are promoting as taken out of context the indigenous population’s children will grow up thinking Great Britain is divided equally between white, black, asian, heterosexual and homosexual and this is not the case. Unless of course the ultimate aim is to hoodwink children and those easily led into this mindset in which case we must ask the question – WHY??

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