Why stereotypes will never ad up

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Yvonne Fontyn

Most advertisers say their products help make people’s lives better. Something that is on the national agenda is to help make women’s lives better, so you would think most corporates would be cognisant of this and that part of their efforts would be to project a positive image of women in the media.

But not most advertisers. No, to sell their stuff they are happy to trot out the worst stereotypes. Every day – at least on SABC 3, which I watch – we are subjected to frame after frame of women depicted as vain, stupid, fitted for domestic work and even nasty. The rule seems to be – if your ad needs a character that is not so bright, cast a female. For the reasonable, informed counter-balance – cast a man. In ad after ad this is played out. And, as in the new Cell C “Hip hop star” campaign and so many beer ads, the men are the actors, the doers, the women the decorative bystanders. Many advertisers use this format.

When I say advertisers I mean of course clients, which means companies that make products and sell services. And the people who buy those products and services are consumers, like me. So I am asking these advertisers, why would I, an intelligent, professional woman, buy your product?

Another good example is Standard Bank’s “The Andersons” TV commercial. I can just imagine the propellor-heads dreaming up a killer campaign with ugly, frigid Mrs Anderson and poor picked-on Mr Anderson. But the sight of that long-faced “woman” makes me sick. The fact that she packs Mr Anderson’s lunch (two pieces of dry bread) makes me sicker. And – did I hear right – wives get 25 percent off their bank fees if their husband has an account? That sounds archaic – would Mr Anderson have to sign the forms for her? And, as a single woman, am I paying more?

I think FNB does way better with its depiction of an energetic woman who gets to work with a drill and installs her home sound system. There’s no freeloading on ugly stereotypes here – like the other FNB ad with the man who buys a clever coffee-maker, it’s all positive and constructive messaging.

Another ad that beggars belief is one for an insurance product called King Price. The premiums are supposed to be cheap and so is the ad, which shows a woman riding on the back of another woman. The “rider” is a dumb blonde putting on lipstick and when she is distracted the make-up goes right up her cheek. Am I supposed to be the target market for this ad? If not, then who? It is so inane and insulting I’d be surprised if anyone bit. Maybe a couple of misogynistic twenty-something men sniggering into their beers.

I also single out a recent McCains TV commercial for stirfry vegetables. Mum is busy and doesn’t feel like cooking – or doesn’t have time – and dad and the kids are whining, “But we’re starving”. So she gets the goodies out of the freezer and turns to her daughter and says “And all you have to do is set the table,” while dad disappears and the boys sit waiting on the sofa. Maybe this client thinks it is cleverly tapping into cultural norms, but in effect it is setting women right back. Why can’t dad or the boys help?

And so it goes on, ad after ad, showing women as domestic stereotypes who care only about stained laundry, or bubbleheads who actually care that their underarm skin is smooth and moisturised.

There’s the one with the dumb receptionist talking about public holidays – Table Mountain day, etc. I can’t remember the product name, it didn’t stick.

And I hated that Telkom ad where a young girl – “going on an adventure” – has her hair dyed pink at the hairdresser while a bedraggled older woman looks on with a mixture of envy and disapproval. No, Telkom, you hit the wrong note, like so many advertisers do. As a woman I don’t want to see myself portrayed like that – and don’t women make most of the decisions around buying?

If you look through brochures of big industrial companies like Sasol, you will see they make an effort to highlight their female engineers, crane operators, accountants and so forth. This is where women’s heads are. We’re fiercely aspirational – and not just about our hair. So, portray women in real situations, and make them real, not some bimbette or ogre dreamt up by a barely adult “creative”.

Advertisers need to get their act together and get liberated when it comes to women. Yes, often we do the domestic stuff, and yes, we are sometimes vain and grumpy. But hell, we do a whole lot more. Think about it, and give us some credit. Because the image you create is the image that goes out there – to millions of girls, looking for role models.


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