By Robin Landa, Professor, Kean University
When I watched the first edition of “Killing Us Softly,” a short documentary film based on a lecture by media scholar and feminist activist Jean Kilbourne, I was shocked by some of the body-language messages I hadn’t noticed prior. Sure, I had noticed the sexualized representation of women in advertising and branding—that was hard to miss. But, as a college student, I hadn’t been adequately vigilant about spotting subtler portrayals. For example, in one ad for a brand of high-end alcohol, we see the man in the photograph looking straight at the audience, but the gaze of the woman, who is standing slightly behind the man with her hands on his shoulders, is directed adoringly at him. Minor grievance? Perhaps, but it sends a message of subordination.
Perhaps you’re thinking of those clichés as vestiges of less enlightened times. But harmful gender stereotypes in the media still exist, taking on new and varied forms.
Back then, I couldn’t help but think, What else am I missing? “Killing Us Softly” was a wake-up call about the pressing responsibility to scrutinize all media messages.
“Portrayals of gender in the media aren’t simply a reflection of mainstream views; they are also channels through which we negotiate our own beliefs and behaviors around gender in a society. They have the power to belittle women and invoke violence or, if implemented responsibly, to change views and advance equality.”— Alison Place, Assistant Professor of Graphic Design, University of Arkansas in Strategic Creativity: A Business Field Guide to Advertising, Branding, and Design
We have enduring patterns of stereotypes about gender, sexuality, neurodiversity, age, people living with disabilities, race, ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic status. They are stubborn patterns. Even now, for example, we see stereotyped portrayals of men in advertising and branding—bumbling men trying to do laundry or care for their children. I suppose they’re saying men are not intended to be caregivers or enforcing the role men should not play. Society pays a terrible price for stereotyped representations. Tropes circulate and recirculate to the detriment of all.
Creative professionals, marketers, and business professionals who create, produce, and distribute cultural artifacts have a responsibility to all members of society. When media messages portray people disrespectfully or as “others,” it diminishes our humanity.
Representing communities of people according to immutable, discernable, or fluid differences, such as race, ethnicity, religion, gender orientation, or sexuality, fosters a divided mentality, possibly encouraging othering, which can be dangerous in communication design, which often sets out to persuade its audience and can shape thinking.
After a nationwide reckoning on social injustice in the U.S., which exposed unignorable systemic racism to the world, someone revealed the racist roots of the song “Turkey in the Straw,” from which the Good Humor ice cream brand’s jingle hailed. When information about the song surfaced and spread on social media—how it had been employed in minstrel shows and how some had changed its lyrics to vile racist ones, Good Humor could have responded in several ways. Good Humor and their parent company, Unilever, decided they had a responsibility to their customers, ice cream truck owners, and to society.
Good Humor and agency Edelman turned to RZA—rapper, composer, and founder of Wu-Tang Clan—to compose a new ice cream truck jingle to represent all communities; they made it available to any ice cream truck vendor. A new jingle, composed by a successful Black artist, replaced notes from a 200-year-old racist anthem. Across the news media and social media platforms, people showed deep appreciation for Good Humor’s actions.
By interrogating your own thinking, being mindful of unconscious bias, you start the process of being aware when stereotypic associations are being employed or constructed in conversations, discourse, or creative solutions. (It’s useful to take the Harvard Implicit Bias test.)
The messages we create, shape, and distribute reflect society as well as shape it. We absorb what the messages communicate and put our own responses out there, on social media platforms, on websites, and in conversation. It’s a significant challenge to ensure that whatever we send out is responsible. The language, images, and the stories we tell matter.
With that firm belief, I offer an investigative message evaluator focused on interrogating ideas, images, and language; power; and appropriation. To critique concepts and creative solutions, interrogation is critical because it invites reflection and active participation in creating a just society. At the very least, we must not contribute to prejudice through creative solutions.
A couple of agencies, such as FCB and Leo Burnett, employ effectiveness scales, ones that incorporate interrogating for negative messages. Kudos to them.
View the creative product through this lens:
- Derogatory: Will harm society due to bias, tropes, or stereotypical representations or concepts.
- Ignorant: Uninformed concepts and portrayals of people and issues. Oblivious to social issues. Rethink because ignorance is damaging.
- Requires scrutiny: Requires further examination and research for messaging and potential effects on people and society.
- Hints of marginalization: Not overtly biased but could cause harm, for example, humor masking denigration or marginalization.
- Intelligent and respectful: Considered representations of groups and communities and civil concepts that do no harm.
- Does good for society.
Being socially responsible is good citizenship. Dealing with bias requires examining your assumptions and the assumptions of other professionals’ work for a brand or entity’s communication. We need to achieve better. Hope lies in reflection.
About the Author
Robin Landa is a distinguished professor at Kean University and a globally recognized ideation expert. She is a well-known “creativity guru” and a best-selling author of books on creativity, design, and advertising, including The New Art of Ideas: Unlock Your Creative Potential. She has won numerous awards and The Carnegie Foundation counts her among the “Great Teachers of Our Time.”