What we see teaches us how to be.

It’s easy to dismiss advertising. The brief bits of filler between the stuff we’d rather consume can seem insignificant, particularly in terms of its power to influence attitudes about gender roles and norms. However, numerous psychological studies on observational learning – also known as social learning – tell us that the media we seemingly passively consume is also teaching us ideas about how to behave, think and be. We humans learn by watching models: parents, teachers and others who are influential to us. We can merely watch someone else, even via a screen, and take cues on our behaviour from there.

The influence of a violent piece of media on a child has been found to be associated with an increased likelihood to be physically violent in their intimate relationships as they grow older. Likewise, prosocial video games have been found to lead to more positive attitudes and behaviours. To grossly oversimplify and generalise things, antisocial media = antisocial behaviour, and prosocial media = prosocial behaviour.

Yesterday RMIT asked me to guest lecture advertising students about gender stereotypes in advertising, and I was struck in particular by one student, who believed that brands had no responsibility to depict men and women in respectful or ethical ways – essentially, brands exist to make money, and shouldn’t be burdened by having to teach us anything about gender roles or norms.

But we know that advertising does have an influence on attitudes, behaviour and culture. And we also know that shared values unify us, and that emotive advertising leads to increased salience and message resonance. So if the cultural case is clear, and the business case is clear, then the question of whether brands have a responsibility to depict gender roles and norms in a progressive and positive manner becomes less about ‘why’ and more about ‘why not’. Why not use the power of advertising to influence positive attitudes about gender roles and norms, and why not use our influence to eradicate harmful gender stereotypes? Why not do subversive cultural good whilst also selling your energy company or your gum brand?

Not all creatives or brand stewards are aware of how their ads can negatively influence viewer’s attitudes and behaviours about gender roles and norms. Unconscious bias leads to unconsciously writing ads that reinforce problematic gender stereotypes. Which appears to be the case with this ad from Orbit, a global gum brand that also goes by the name Extra here in Australia. Take a look at the ad – what do you think about how gender is portrayed here? 


Orbit’s depictions of both boys and girls in this ad are problematic in my eyes (as is their stereotype-laden characterisations and cliché-ridden script in general). The girl has been written as The Dream Girl, the silent object of desire who exists for consumption and is perfect in both looks and passivity. She doesn’t speak, nor have agency: she exists solely as muse and Madonna for the boys. The boys are also typecast – one as the nerdy boy who lusts after Dream Girl, and the other as school bully who solves his problems with his fists rather than his words. In just 15 seconds, the television commercial manages to shove in a multitude of harmful, two-dimensional stereotypes about what is means to be a girl and what it means to be a boy. Could the product have been promoted in a different way? Yes. Could a stereotype-free script have led to a more engaging, more resonant, and more entertaining ad about gum? Yes. Could Orbit have used their 15 seconds of air time to influence positive attitudes and behaviours about gender and stereotypes? Absolutely.

When we observe behaviour, the mirror neurons in our brain fire away, and we learn simply by watching what we see. Likewise, advertising teaches viewers the version of the world we choose to portray. What we say, and how we say it, has significance, not just for business, but for influencing a cultural shift forward towards better gender equity, that benefits all of us.

* Also, apologies for the delay between posts. Pandemic plus parenting does not equal greater side hustle productivity.

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