It’s time to remodel the gender bias in branding

Gender biases are still ever present in advertising models, which could be impacting brands’ capacity for creativity.

Source: Shutterstock

Equal representation of men and women in various societal realms, like film, media, business, cultural leadership and politics, is not a radical notion anymore. However, the reality still falls short of this aspiration. We may wish for equality, but my hypothesis is that we will not shift the dial on gender representation until we challenge how we value the various attributes of archetypes.

While some people poopoo the use of archetypes in brand building for being stereotypical, superficial nonsense, I’m not one of those people. I believe in the power of these images to move us from the deepest parts of our subconscious. Their limitations are just a reflection of the limiting cultural norms we have inherited around gender and the qualities esteemed in Western society.

When Carl Jung defined archetypes as universal symbols or patterns that exist within our unconscious, he intended for them to be gender neutral. But cultural conditioning carries bias. Ask yourself honestly, what image springs to mind if I ask you to picture the archetype of a hero, ruler, every-man, outlaw, magician, explorer, jester or even creator?

Chances are, if you grew up in the UK in the 20th century, these images are predominantly male. A quick Google image search confirms the bias while leaving the lover, caregiver and innocent for dainty pictures of naive or devoted women. The gender stereotypes are deeply entrenched but perhaps just as worrying is the quantitative bias of roles towards the masculine.

‘We’re at a systemic disadvantage’: Female marketers on working harder for less pay

A 2017 analysis of over 2,000 English-language advertisements from the Cannes Lions archive showed that men get about four times more time on screen than women and ads depicting men only were five times more common than ads depicting women only. These figures remained largely consistent from 2006-2016.

Jung, as brilliant as he was, inherited scientific enquiry from the forefather of logic and reason, Aristotle. Aristotle gave us the scientific method that has been the foundation of so much of our Western culture. He was also a renowned misogynist who believed that women were not fit to contribute to society and must be kept under the control of men. The archetypes we have inherited are rooted in his pantheon of Greek gods whose three major goddesses were conjured into being as fully developed women by men, in
service of men.

The exciting news for our industry is that images are rebalancing our brains and feminising the world.

Hera, the goddess of marriage and childbirth, came from the stomach of
her father, Cronos after being rescued by her brother Zeus. Athena, goddess of strategy, politics and warfare, came from the forehead of Zeus. Aphrodite, the lover and goddess of procreation, came from the white foam of Uranus’s genitals.

In Professor Leonard Shlain’s ‘The Alphabet Versus the Goddess’, he proposes the war on women started with a rise in literacy and written language which compromised the balance between the two hemispheres of the human brain.

“Any culture that adopts an alphabet goes through a period of demonstrable madness where they denigrate women. The reason why is that the left hemisphere doesn’t like the right hemisphere and if you give it more power it tries to put down the right hemisphere. This manifests itself as taking away women’s rights, an abhorrence of image information and the disappearance of the goddess.”

He cites research that indicates women tend to exhibit more balanced hemispheres, while men show left-brain dominance; the male eye is more predisposed to fine detail while the female eye has more capacity for spectrums of colour. Our cultural predisposition for reading and writing has created a bias that favours men. The 12 traditional archetypes proposed by Jung based on logical division and dichotomy are at odds with the holistic and integrative process of creative thinking and at odds with “feminine” attributes.

The cultural landscape, however, is evolving. The dominance of linear texts has given way to a visually oriented world.

The exciting news for our industry is that images are rebalancing our brains and feminising the world. After two millennia of culture founded on long, linear tomes of religious text, we live in a world of the image. Six years after its invention, cinema overtook church attendance. The average person absorbs approximately 10,000 advertising images a day and when you watch television the alpha brainwaves responsible for creative thinking are switched on. We are in a powerful position to influence consciousness.

Addressing the bias

But if the media is the message, how are we using imagery to inspire our own creativity? How much do your briefing sessions rely on a single sheet of paper with neatly refined words? How many of your agency-client conversations are via email? How much of your day do you spend looking at a screen, analysing the details and filtering out audience and competitor profiles according to binary boxes?

To address gender bias in advertising, encourage a daily activation of the right brain for emotional stimulation, assimilation of ideas, and a broader perspective. Incorporate images and fitting music in briefs. Replace email conversations with video technology and encourage physical movement. Take your team away from the screens and into an environment representative of your brand world. Cultivate cultures that support collaboration rather than competition.

Archetype traits should not be separated according to male versus female but by an infinitely diverse spectrum of qualities. Ruler brands with deep compassion and wry humour. Mothers with a saucy side who can become ferociously defensive in the face of injustice. The wise old mystic with access to magical forces that can either heal or destroy.

Archetypes are a mirror to our subconscious so as our culture evolves our archetypes evolve with them. And likewise if we wish to change our culture we can do so by changing the archetype model that influences it. While advocating for more feminine characters in advertising, reject linear dichotomies. As identity becomes more integrated, nuanced, and
individualistic, brands and brand-building approaches should follow suit.

Vaila Robertson is head of strategy at Kitchen and author of Moving from Maiden. @vailarobertson