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TV Christmas ads come with the gift of gender stereotyping

As the pantomime season unfolds, we are all subjected to the “wondrous” festive tales told by advertisers. John Lewis and Waitrose have given us adverts full of animal characters; different species coexisting in tentative harmony or enduring stormy times. While they seem to subtly address ethnic diversity, to an extent and in between the lines, gender issues arguably are still lurking – out of focus and in the background.

The Waitrose ad offers us a caring child who leaves a festive minced pie for an exhausted robin. The child at first seems androgynous, but a dress later betrays her gender. Notably, however, the robin is saved on its precarious journey to the pie by a rugged man working on a fishing boat.

In the Morrison’s advert, meanwhile, the main character is an all-knowing, slightly geeky boy – while the women do the shopping and serve the dinner (although the father does make an appearance at the supermarket, seemingly to select the wine). It all fits in rather nicely with the gender stereotypes of caring, rather passive women and assertive, knowledgeable men.


The family in the John Lewis ad, while “progressively” black, follows very traditional gender roles, too. The mum looks after the children at home while the dad makes a heroic effort of putting up the trampoline – fighting the frost and accidental injury in the dark.

The Sainsbury’s ad portrays a touching story of an overworked dad whose only dream is to find time for his family over Christmas. This he achieves through a eureka moment when he decides to solve the problem in a technological way: by cloning himself. Everyone is happy: the wife and children waiting at home and the male (and twerking!) boss. Again, the characters embody gender stereotypes.

Perhaps the trophy for the least gender conservative ad should go to Mrs Claus in this year’s Marks & Spencer’s advert. She is a confident, classy, attractive older woman who uses high-tech solutions to respond to a late present request. In true James Bond style, she resorts to hidden electronic maps and holographic monitors (forget touch-screens) and jets off on a snowmobile followed by a helicopter.

She simply enters the destination address through the main door dismissing chimneys altogether. The family in the background seems rather egalitarian, too – a rare example of a father figure looking after children as naturally as the mother does. Some are quick to point out that Mrs Claus has to keep her missions secret to protect Mr Claus’ ego. Still, the story is very heartwarming and full of love.

So what?

But why should we care about how men and women are portrayed in advertising? Well, research shows that exposure to gender stereotypes in advertising has numerous negative effects and mainly, but not exclusively, on women. For example, it decreases women’s achievement, motives and ambition as well as attitudes to the involvement in politics and self-esteem.

It also reduces performance in maths tests, interest in quantitative domains, such as numeracy skills, and preference for leadership roles or non-traditional jobs. As a consequence, women tend to avoid domains which are inconsistent with their gender stereotype and this prevents them from acquiring the experience and skills needed for the best paid jobs, such as those in management, banking and engineering.

Ads can act as a disincentive for career aspiration. ESB Essentials/Shutterstock

Men are discouraged from entering into stereotypically female domains, too. Moreover, they are not immune to the negative effects of such media either. After exposure to attractive, wealthy and high-status male media images, male viewers report lower levels of body esteem. Thus gender stereotypes are perpetuated on both sides.

One explanation of the negative effects of gender stereotypes refers to stereotype threat. This describes a fear experienced by stigmatised groups (whether they are women, elderly or ethnic minorities) of confirming the negative stereotype pertaining to their group. This in turn takes away the cognitive resources (or mental powers) needed to perform well. Thus the vicious circle closes.

Breaking stereotypes

Should advertisers resort to cross-dressing in true British pantomime style to break away from the gender tradition? Not necessarily. Ironically, and despite the omnipresence of gender stereotypical advertising, non-traditional advertising can be very effective.

We have seen it with the Dove “Real women” campaign – and others are following suit. Just look at Sanitary towel maker Always’ “Like a Girl” campaign, “Girls do Science” by Microsoft, or “The Girl Can” by Sport England. They all focus on breaking female gender roles.

This girl can.

In fact, sticking to female gender stereotypes in advertising may result in a backlash – such as the response to the “beach body ready” campaign. What of breaking male roles though? My recent research shows that a non-traditional, warm house husband portrayal can indeed be more effective than the traditional businessman type – for both men and women and in countries as diverse as the UK, Poland and South Africa.

There is a positive message in this festive story. When advertisers do challenge gender issues it can be effective, and of course appropriate, at a time when we should all be spreading a Christmas message of peace and equality far and wide.

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