CSR: The Effect of Sexist Advertising On Society and the Responsibility of Brands
Brands are responsible for the message they send. Here is a look at what science tells us about the effects of sexism in advertising.
The caption for the ad above for a car from Ford reads, “Leave your worries behind.” Images such as this lead to the normalisation of rape culture. And it is not just with men in the driver's seat. The caption for the one below is the same, "Leave your worries behind."
Just to be fair I chose ads from the West, but for comparison here is one of hundreds of Czech ads, which tend to be more graphic. This one is for a knife.
Though brutal rape by a stranger is reported about twice a day in the Czech Republic, much more common is rape by someone known to the victim. In the Czech Republic more than 25% of women and 6-10% of men encounter sexual violence during their lives - but the official statistics only refelct a fraction of the actual incidence of sexual violence phenomena (source).
Rape culture is propagated through rape myths. Here are three lists a), b) and c) of common rape myths (two in English and one in Czech) held by many cultures. This list may be help ad agencies educate themselves so that they can avoid content that propagates these myths.
Here are a few of the many rape myths that are often heard:
“No, really means yes.”
“Rape is sex, rape is passion, rape is normal”
“Women ask for it by how they dress”
“Women fantasize about being raped.”
“Wome often make false reports of rape.”
“Rape only happens to young attractive women."
“Rape is almost always done by a stranger.”
“Rape is an act of lust and passion that men can’t control.”
“Rape is a spur of the moment event, most rapes are not planned”
“Alcohol turns men into rapists”
“Rape can only happen to women”
“Women are responsible for stopping rape”
Advertisements and Rape Culture
There have been hundreds of scientific studies done on the effect of sexism in advertising. The short answer is that it does effect attitudes towards women negatively: in increases the acceptability of violence against women, and decreases the acceptance of feminist attitudes. They also found the opposite, that positive and progressive images of women decreased negative attitudes about women and increased the acceptance of equality.
“The Impact of Women in Advertisements on Attitudes Toward Women”
This study confirms what previous studies found, which is that there is a relationship between seeing sex images in advertisements and attitudes that support sexual aggression.
Also those seeing sex image advertisements show a lower acceptance of feminism. It is suggested that continuous presentation of such advertisements undermines women's striving for equality.
It also found that seeing progressive advertisements related to positive attitudes toward feminism and the women's movement.
“Images of women in advertisements: Effects on attitudes related to sexual aggression”
This study concludes that males exposed to sex-object advertisements are much more accepting of rape-supportive attitudes,
And that females exposed to progressive female images were less accepting of such attitudes.
“The Effects of Gender and Music Video Imagery on Sexual Attitudes”
This study found that exposure to gender-stereotyped music video imagery had a significant effect on attitudes about adversarial sexual relationships,
And there was evidence that exposure to sexual imagery affected the acceptance
This is a tiny fraction of the research out there, we hope that you will have a look for yourself.
Why it is a problem
Advertising sells more than just goods - it also represents the values and images of masculinity and femininity - which retroactively affect our view of the world and of ourselves.
The use of stereotypes in advertising leads to overlooking a wide range of roles, situations and characteristics of real women and men.
Using these images in advertising is also problematic as it helps to maintain (gender) inequality in society, which is reflected, for example, in the disadvantage of women in the labor market or, on the other hand, disadvantage in the sphere of the family.
Presenting women in subordinate or degrading positions can contribute to tolerance of violence against women.
Advertising images also affect the perception of your body. This "myth of beauty" is reflected in dissatisfaction with one's own body, leading to eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia).
Conclusion: Companies looking to make themselves more viable in the 21st century by incorporating CSR programs, transitioning to Triple Bottom Line Accounting, becoming more sustainable, transitioning to the circular economy, and striving to build long-term brand loyalty through having a Higher Purpose, and Giving Back to the society in which they function, should heed the research (see womenomics) that in the next decade women will control nearly three quarters of consumer spending worldwide. Will advertising that degrades these customers help the brand? Furthermore research shows that brands that are designed with women’s needs in mind, by a team of designers that includes women, are also more attractive to men too. Yes, a controversial campaign like Bernard’s Pin-up girls, or their “Feminist Edition” get a lot of likes on social media (but educational trends show that this but what is the long term effect on the brand as the culture, slowly, but surely changes?