Sep 25, 2019

Do advertising stereotypes need a revamp?

Audience stereotypes have been relied on to focus the creative and buying strategy for years, but now that audience and brand relationships are developing, are these audience stereotypes a help or a hindrance?

  • The media industry is developing at a surprisingly fast pace and the new technologies available to brands, agencies, and content owners are changing the way they communicate with their audiences.
  • These recent developments in the industry mean that certain legacy practices are being called into question.
  • In the past, audience stereotypes were used to help focus the creative and buying strategy. However, thanks to technological advancements and the vast data marketers have at their disposal, the time has come to reevaluate these traditional stereotypes and mould the future of advertising in a way that is more personalised to consumers.

“Our evidence shows how harmful gender stereotypes in ads can contribute to inequality in society, with costs for all of us. Put simply, we found that some portrayals in ads can, over time, play a part in limiting people’s potential.” Guy Parker, chief executive of the ASA.

In a nutshell, what was found?

If a brand were to still rely on broad stereotypes, they are in danger of excluding key customers from their target marketing and this could lead to them losing valuable business. The sophisticated software and data marketers have at their disposal has alleviated some of the need for them to make assumptions about their target demographic. It has presented brands and agencies with new avenues through which they can understand and engage with consumers more deeply.

Now is the time to reevaluate this reliance on audience stereotypes and this has become a focal point for the industry in 2019 with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) leading the way. The new rules that came into play in January were recently enforced as two adverts were considered an inappropriate representation of gender stereotypes.


Philadelphia received 128 complaints after this TV ad aired, it featured two dads accidentally leaving their kids on a conveyor belt after being distracted by a Philadelphia bagel and only after noticing do they rescue the child and say, “don’t tell mum!”

Mondelez, Philadelphia’s parent company, said they intended on illuminating the appeal of their product through a humorous situation where the parents were so distracted by the delicious bagel that they briefly forgot about their children. Clearcast understood this and commented that the ad correctly demonstrated a momentary lapse in concentration that many tired, new parents experience, as opposed to the generalisation that fathers are incapable of looking after children properly because of their gender.

Nevertheless, this ad became one of the first banned by the ASA as they believed the humour present did not help the stereotype of men being unable to care for children as well as women could.



The ASA received three complaints after Volkswagen released their TV ad for eGolf as viewers thought it identified men as the gender more likely to participate in adventurous activities, while the women remain in care-giving roles. In response to this, Volkswagen argued that its core message for eGolf TV was focused on a human’s ability to adapt to challenges. They continued by pointing out that the characters were shown performing actions that were not stereotypical to one gender. Clearcast agreed, saying the ad was largely balanced, showing both males and females taking part in adventurous activities but, mentioned that the last shot of the woman and pram was a reasonable stereotype.

“Two-thirds of women skip ads if they feel they negatively stereotype females and 85% say the film and ad industries do a poor job of depicting real women.” Kantar

Again, the ASA decided to ban this ad, making it one of the first alongside Philadelphia to be banned this year. They said this ad would encourage viewers to focus on the direct contrast presented between the male and female character’s depiction, which again, did not mitigate the stereotype.

Are stereotypes still helping?

Marketers have fallen down the trap of making sweeping generalisations like rich people are more likely to buy luxury items, men watch sports and drink beer, and young people are the main users of social media and technology. These age-old stereotypes were once thought of as useful foundations for campaigns, but now, they could be detrimental to businesses as consumers are searching for a deeper connection and conversation with brands.

This broader form of targeting was previously seen as more efficient as it was far easier for marketers to target large groups of adults, for example, 18-49 years old, when employing mass media strategies. However, stereotypes have now been found to limit a brand’s reach to certain audiences, for example, as there are women who do also drink beer and watch sports - by ignoring these groups, a business’s impact is limited.

Traditional marketing needs a makeover:

With the vast data, marketers now have at their disposal, it is crucial that they use this to focus their advertising efforts on reaching the correct audience, and the only way for this to be achieved is by reexamining traditional marketing stereotypes. The more a brand invests in data alongside their marketing efforts, the less reliant they will be on audience stereotypes, meaning that their spending and audience targeting will be far more precise and valuable.

A blind spot for marketers that we will be focusing on, according to research conducted by Comscore, is the stereotype surrounding luxury shoppers. This has been formed on the basis that luxury items are more expensive, so the individuals that are more likely to purchase them are the ones that have a higher purchase power.

Comscore investigated demographics, content consumption, and purchase habits in four distinct groups: 

  • Luxury converters: someone who visits a luxury shopping site and makes a purchase.
  • Luxury shoppers: someone who visits a luxury shopping site but does not make a purchase.
  • Non-luxury converters: someone who visits a non-luxury shopping site and makes a purchase.
  • Non-luxury shoppers: someone who visits a non-luxury shopping site and does not make a purchase.

Household Income Comscore

As demonstrated in the graph above, Comscore found a clear correlation between luxury shopping and household income.

Household Age

However, this second graph shows a key stereotype that can be eliminated - some luxury shoppers are in fact younger than expected - the age range is surprisingly varied.

The most noticeable spike for luxury conversion happens among adults aged 30 to 34, and 35 to 44. This spike may occur as they are opting to either not have children, or have them at a later date, meaning their income will be higher than expected in that age range. Following this, there is a decline as people enter their mid-40s, this could correlate to those who chose to have children and are now saving for their children’s education or other child-related expenses. Finally, the luxury shoppers pick up again in the 60-64 age group, almost matching those in their 30s. However, it again tapers off after 65 years old, which may suggest their focus is shifting on retirement as they have a fixed income.

Further research suggests that age is not the only stereotype that has been misguided, for example, luxury shoppers are not just high-powered executives and CEOs. Comscore found that part-timers had the highest spike for luxury converters while homemakers were the highest for luxury shoppers. While it is possible that these two groups may be the spouses of wealthy executives, by targeting the luxurious advertising solely at the high-income execs, marketers will be underdelivering the message to other members of the group, meaning valuable reach is lost.

What does this mean for marketers?

Despite previous reliance on broad stereotypes as a viable form of targeting, consumers today are far more savvy and diverse than before. They know exactly what they want and can no longer be defined by their age or gender. To stay ahead of the game, marketers must look deeper and analyse their consumer’s behaviour, preferences, and habits. As demographics and behaviours are changing, making these preconceived assumptions could cost brands potential business and valuable ROI.

What can marketers do?

  • Use the data at their disposal: with the variety of data available across many platforms, marketers should inform their creative decisions with the advanced insights available. While they might believe they know their audience inside and out, there will always be something missed and data could provide this missing link. By reassessing an audience or investing in data streams, marketers could discover new sources for growth and revenue.
  • Embrace technological advancements: with the technology available to marketers, there is no longer a need to guess what an audience wants, there is less need to make assumptions thanks to the increasingly direct relationship brands have with consumers. By utilising these developing technologies, brands can focus on specific audiences to ensure a more impactful marketing performance.

Advertising should have a positive and progressive presence in society and as it has a key role to play in the representation of that society, brands would do well to take a more conscious role in creating an accurate representation of their audience.