Advertising has a powerful influence on our attitudes and expectations in relation to gender. There is growing evidence that the use of gender stereotypes and increasing reliance on sexually objectifying images of women in advertisements undermines efforts to promote gender equality and prevent violence against women in Australia.
In 2018, Women’s Health Victoria (WHV) was funded by the Victorian Government to deliver a project to address sexism in advertising. This research into community responses to gender inequalities in advertising – produced collaboratively by RMIT University and WHV – was funded as part of this project. The aim of the study was to explore Victorian community responses to gender portrayals in advertising, in order to identify potential pathways forward to promote gender equality in the advertising setting.
To obtain detailed qualitative data on responses to gender portrayals in advertising, ten focus groups were held with 74 Victorian community members (46 women, 28 men) in metropolitan and regional centres. Data was collected on perceptions of gender portrayals in advertising and the impacts of these portrayals, understandings and perceptions of the regulation of advertising in Australia, and how gender portrayals in advertising could be improved.
Portrayals of gender
Participants felt that advertising portrayals of women and men were stereotyped, with women shown as homemakers, mothers or sex objects, and men portrayed in more action-oriented roles and associated with leadership and power. These portrayals were seen to be out of step with contemporary society.
Participants raised concerns that such portrayals place pressure on individuals to conform to limiting gender stereotypes. They regarded children as a particularly vulnerable population group who internalise expectations about gender from advertising.
Participants felt that the impacts of these portrayals were particularly disempowering for women and contributed to the devaluing of women in society. Many suggested that advertisements that sexualise women or focus on women’s appearance had a negative impact on intimate relationships, body image, selfesteem and mental health. Several expressed concern that these portrayals could contribute to violence against women.
Women participants tended to express concerns about gender portrayals more readily than men, particularly in relation to idealised and sexualised images of women. They observed that these portrayals were sometimes presented as empowering, but were concerned that they could set unrealistic standards for women.
Participants felt that these portrayals were problematic, but were so common that they had become normalised. This was perceived to have a desensitising effect. As a result, participants said they often did not consciously react to problematic gender portrayals, even though they were affected by them.