Brand messaging has long permeated our culture. In the 1960s, American girls grew up believing that "blondes have more fun" and if you "give her a Hoover, you give her the best."
Mad Men-era ads promoting lotions and dishwashing liquids extolled the terror of turning 30. Ladies, your hands and face will dry up like a crustacean if you do not moisturize constantly. In the words of an old lotion ad, "Would you want to hold hands with a lobster?"
While a lot of progress has been made in the last 50 years, sexism and ageism obviously haven't disappeared from advertising. A woman, regardless of color, is often portrayed in limited capacities. She's young mommy calmly strapping her kid into a minivan or she's the mom with a Mona Lisa smile pulling out a fried, frozen chicken dish proud of her cleverness at meal problem-solving. Invariably, this includes a Martha Stewart look that has sustained for 25 years: blue work shirts and khakis.
If a woman is over 30, she is plopped on a couch chatting about her intestinal bacteria with Jamie Lee Curtis or doling out sage cleaning tips. If she's under 30, she's the large breasted, slim-hipped "up for anything" sexpot who paaarrrties with a cold round of brew. This is the same woman who, upon turning 45, becomes the patient, yet loving "up for anything" spouse of her tired, irritable, cannot get anything up, 50-plus partner of erectile dysfunction prescription drug ads. And all of these white gals do yoga!
Despite the fact that television skews older, commercials rarely feature people in the older demographic except in prescription drug ads or financial retirement spots. Older Americans are frequently perceived as sick, feeble, or foolish. A lucky few invested well and now spend their days hitting balls or sailing.
Gay people as consumers are often conspicuously absent in advertising. As much as the way women are represented in advertising campaigns is annoying and disappointing, at least we are there. Fear of a consumer boycott is a strong motivator to stick to broad stroke generalizations of the American public. Advertisers that take the risk and create controversial lifestyle ads are often a target of negative tweets and emails. Nabisco was highly criticized for "normalizing sin" in Honey Maid Grahams' "This is Wholesome" campaign that featured a parenting homosexual couple.
According to the 2012 U.S. Census, 16.9 percent of the population identifies itself as Hispanic and 13.1 percent as Black or African American. Thirty percent of commercials obviously do not feature actors from those races. The proliferation of technology has given Asian American actors more work playing the part of the "smart, tech-savvy expert" -- but again, a stereotype.
Against this backdrop, it is worth pausing to highlight the growing chorus of brands that haven't succumbed to broad stereotypes. While this list is by no means exhaustive, here are some brands that broke through with inspiring, inclusive brand messages.
Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign is widely heralded for its groundbreaking examinations of what beauty is.
Pantene's "Labels Against Women" campaign proffers an inventive and refreshing perspective as to how women are perceived in the workplace.
In GE's "Childlike Imagination," a young girl imagines her mother's fantastic inventions aligned with GE's verticals. "My Mom makes trains that are friends with trees...my Mom works at GE." Beautifully shot, the message not only humanizes GE but also empowers young girls to believe they can do anything when they grow up. The little girl is proud of her mother and looks with wonder upon her accomplishments. My mom is creative, my mom is smart, my mom is inventive, my mom is hardworking, my mom is my hero -- these are the subliminal, positive messages generated from this refreshing campaign.
Under Armour consistently depicts females as fearless with powerful physiques pushing themselves to go beyond. Their "Future Girl Innovation, I Will" campaign states, "Our job is to make you better. To make all athletes better. To inspire you. To empower you." Inclusive. Positive. Motivating.
Tampax Pearl Active eschews the white-skirted gal confidently crossing the street or lunching with friends for a young athletic woman covered in mud, hauling herself over a wall in triumph. Muddy-faced and sweating rather than stereotypically serene, she states: "At a moment like this, I'm glad I use new Tampax Pearl Active."
The clear winner in the contest of inclusion and breaking stereotypes is Swiffer. This spot features a husband who is an amputee, does the housekeeping, and has a black wife whom laughingly proclaims, "I don't think I was meant to sweep." Swiffer understands that women don't always do the cleaning or are not necessarily even good at it.
In Lifetime's "Real Women" campaign, Latina Magazine's founder, Christy Haubegger, relates how after a successful day of meetings with top Fortune 500 marketers, she walks down her hotel hallway with an ice bucket and is mistaken for the maid. Ms. Haubegger awaits the day when someone will look at her and think, "...that's a lawyer...or an entrepreneur." This type of reflection from Lifetime is expected and appreciated.
In early July, Burger King boldly rolled out "The Proud Whopper." Wrapped in rainbow colors, the burger was exclusively sold in one location on Market Street in San Francisco. The "We are all the Same Inside" campaign was in honor of San Francisco's Gay Pride celebration and although no TV spots ran, the following two minute video featuring customers debating whether the burger tasted differently appeared on the brand's YouTube channel.
As precisely reaching the right consumer at the right time with the right message crosses over from digital to television, generalizations in advertising will fade away. Someday stereotypes in advertising will seem as archaic as pay phone booths and our grandchildren will stare with disbelief when we say, "A long time ago commercials had only white straight people in them and women who lamented about laundry."
"Image of businesswoman breaking bricks with hammer" image via Shutterstock.