On the off-chance you watched the Superbowl for the football, you may not have paid attention to the commercials. To summarize, Michael Scott from The Office and Cardi B teamed up to promote Pepsi, Michael Buble exists outside of the month of December and Bud Light really wants you to know they don’t use corn syrup. So what?
Here’s the thing: we’ve seen these same commercials a thousand times. There’s the beer ad with men cheering at a sports bar or the movie trailers voiced by a Darth Vader wannabe. In makeup or clothing commercials, female celebrities seem ageless. However, even the most generic advertisements tend to use male voices or figures. Women also use insurance, cars, steakhouses and Amazon, yet most advertisements are led by male figures.
According to data collected by the Geena Davis Institute in 2006, 33.9% of characters in commercials were female. In 2016, the study was revisited, finding 36.9% of commercial characters as female.
After 35 years working in marketing and seeing only a 3% increase in female characters, Diane Law, a marketing professor at Point Loma Nazarene University, says, “Advertising hasn’t caught up with what’s changing in our society.”
Even without the physical presence of a male, communication professor Lisa Raser notes the influence of a male voice. The big, booming voice so commonly used in promotional material is unsettlingly familiar. An authority complex plays a significant role in this.
“It’s reinforcing traditional sex roles, in terms of stereotypes and expectations,” Raser says. “They function as status reminders of control and power.”
Linda Beail, Director of the Margaret Stevenson Center for Women’s Studies, says these values are deeply ingrained in our society. She says, “For most of human history, men have occupied the positions of status and power. Those are the voices we listen to, the voices we wanted to hear, the experiences we valued.”
Beail addresses the historical basis for the lack of women in advertising. “In Victorian ideology, decent women were on a pedestal in private, at home,” Beail says. “The only women who were in public or allowed to speak publicly were fallen women.” As a result, she says, “There’s a lack of connection in what we view as feminine and what we view as powerful.”
While males in advertising are more common, Raser emphasizes that stereotyping goes both ways. “It’s important to note the phenomenon of the absent man in commercials around the domestic sphere,” she says. “Men can be portrayed as clueless, or silly, associated with products that have to do with grocery shopping or cleaning.”
Experimental social psychologist Max Butterfield addresses the use of men or women in specific advertisements. Audience matters, he says, because a male or female represent a product depending on the stereotypes of who uses them. Butterfield says, “That will serve to perpetuate the stereotypes of gender roles. It’s really going to affect young children. They grow to have these values institutionalized.”
Butterfield offers advice to viewers and consumers, saying, “Companies aren’t out to get you, but they have the power to do it. You have to be aware there will be factors, intentional and unintentional, that influence you.”
In order to break this cycle of gender stereotypes, Law suggests, “Make them aware of their unconscious visibility to what they’re putting out there, and companies will change,” she says. “Change is inevitable, companies need to step up to the plate.”