In Depth

How advertisers play the mind game

Adverts surround us, but to what extend do they distort our view of ourselves and the world?

"So easy even dads can do it".

"Sometimes your family's active lifestyle creates the sort of stains and laundry challenges that require some serious mum power."

Many adverts rely on assumptions about gender and social roles to sell products, but we rarely debate the psychology of advertising before deciding which detergent to buy.

The Advertising Standards Authority thinks it is about time we did and is drawing up tough guidelines to ban inappropriate commercials.

Not that this is the first time stereotypical ads have been subject to public debate. Last year saw a furore over a protein drink advert featuring a bikini-clad woman asking: "Are you beach body ready?"

Nearly 400 complaints were made, with many saying the advert shamed women who did not conform to a supposed "ideal" and could exacerbate body image issues. Around 70,000 signed a petition calling for the campaign to be removed.

Campaigners claim advertising reinforces gender stereotypes and exploits insecurities about appearance and behaviour. But do they really twist the way we see ourselves - and the rest of the world?

The Oxo mum

A 2014 study from advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi found mothers had strong feelings about the way they are depicted in adverts.

Only one in five could recall relating to any advertising they’d viewed. Idealised depictions of domestic life, overseen by a calm and competent maternal figure - exemplified by Lynda Bellingham in the popular Oxo adverts in the 1980s and 1990s - failed to resonate.

However, there were also concerns about adverts portraying stressed-out mums on the verge of a breakdown.

"Most mums have clutter, but not chaos; tidiness but not perfection," one told researchers. "We are all second-guessing ourselves all of the time so making it more difficult doesn’t help."

"Dumb dad" adverts portraying incompetent men failing to perform domestic tasks such as cleaning or childcare have also been the target of anger.

Noticeably absent are depictions of men as "stupid about serious subjects, or incompetent at running anything outside the domestic sphere", says Daily Kos.

By portraying men as inherently unsuited to domestic tasks, these "dumb dad" adverts actually "affirm, rather than challenge sexist notions of women's work and women's place".

Woman's work

Feminists have long identified advertising as one of the subtle cultural influences that continue to push women towards traditional life choices - not only marriage and motherhood, but also career paths historically seen as "feminine".

Baby formula brand Aptamil was criticised for an advert showing little girls growing up to be ballerinas, while little boys were future mathematicians and mountain climbers.

While the precise influence of the media on life choices is difficult to quantify, a correlation has been found between advertising and gender performance, although the most up-to-date research suggests women are becoming more resistant to such messages.

A 1984 study found women who watched a compilation of adverts portraying traditional gender roles were more likely to de-emphasise professional aspirations when asked about their ambitions.

However, when researchers repeated the study in 2008, they discovered "women's achievement scripts now appear more similar to men's, as well as more resistant to sexist exposure".

Advertising has also been proven to affect the way men think about women and treat them in the professional world.

Men who watched a compilation of advertising that sexualised women were more likely to ask a female candidate personal questions in a job interview task, according to a 1995 study. The also rated her as less competent than interviewers from a control group.

Researchers concluded that sexualised ads may create "a cultural climate in which treating women as sex objects is viewed as appropriate".

Mirror, mirror on the wall

Probably the most well-documented social side effect of gendered advertising is the negative impact on body image, with dozens of studies indicating they enforce the idea of a "perfect" body - often making us miserable in the process.

Girlguiding UK found body image issues were rampant among girls and young women, with 38 per cent of seven to 21-year-olds saying they were unhappy with the way they looked.

In response, Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, said girls were being "bombarded with images in the media" which exacerbated insecurities about their appearance.

In a 2007 study, women asked to look at magazine ads portraying thin models subsequently "reported greater state self-objectification, weight-related appearance anxiety, negative mood, and body dissatisfaction".

A growing body of research also argues that physical ideals harm men and boys as week.

Men and boys are now thought to make up a quarter of those suffering eating disorders, while The Atlantic reports a rise in the use of muscle-enhancing supplements and steroids among teenage boys keen to emulate male bodies seen in the media.

"The media has become more of an equal opportunity discriminator," Dr Raymond Lemberg, an expert on male eating disorders, said. "Men’s bodies are not good enough anymore either."


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