This was originally published by AWARE.
Compelling, effective advertising must reflect certain realities about our lives. Yet in promising to reflect reality, our ads end up shaping reality, too—their norms become our norms; their boundaries map our imaginations.
In the context of gender, this means that we want ads that i) acknowledge the complex set of obstacles women face in the world, and/or ii) depict women overcoming those obstacles and succeeding. Are ads in Singapore succeeding in either of those tasks?
EXAMINING 200 TELEVISION ADS
Gender-equality organisation AWARE and marketing consultancy R3 Worldwide embarked on a project to examine gender portrayal in Singapore commercials. We looked at 200 television advertisements produced by Singapore’s top 100 advertisers, spanning a range of industries including telecommunications, financial services, beauty and government. The ads were all broadcast in Singapore between 2018 and 2020.
Besides observing overall trends, we drew up a shortlist of ads we found to be exemplars for gender equality. While guidelines on gender portrayal have been published for advertisers in other countries (e.g. by the Advertising Standards Authority in the UK), there has been no such endeavour in Singapore. We therefore hoped our list would give local advertisers a nudge to think more critically about their own depictions of gender.
QUANTITATIVE ASSESSMENT: REPRESENTATION BY THE NUMBERS
First, to get a quantitative measure of representation, we tallied men and women in lead and supporting parts across the 200 ads to derive a ratio of male to female characters.
On both counts, men outnumbered women. The ads featured 23% more male lead characters (179 to 146), and 8% more male supporting characters (328 to 304), than female.
QUANTITATIVE ASSESSMENT: GENDER ROLES
Next, we listed out some common roles relating to gender and power, and tallied the number of ads that featured i) male and ii) female embodiments of those roles. These included:
- Working characters
We found that ads were 48% more likely to depict men (62 ads) than women (42 ads) as having paid employment of some sort.
- Characters performing domestic work
Ads were almost six times more likely to depict women (23 ads) performing some sort of domestic work (e.g. cleaning, cooking or childcare) than men (4 ads).
- Expert/novice characters
More than twice as many ads depicted men (35 ads) providing knowledge in our ads—e.g. teaching others or answering questions—than women (14 ads). This was despite the fact that ads depicted men and women receiving such knowledge at around the same rate.
- Saviour/saved characters
Similarly, more than twice as many ads depicted men in heroic, rescuer roles (e.g. repairing objects for others, assisting the injured) than women (13 ads to 6 ads). These roles were often driven home by such stylistic conventions as swelling, romantic music. Meanwhile, the reverse was true for ads depicting characters in distress, requiring rescue: 13 ads featured women, and 6 ads featured men, in that role.
Moving on to individual ad evaluations, we scored each ad on how it treated gender stereotypes in behaviours and characteristics, and how it portrayed body image (in size, hair, skin and other attributes). For this portion, we invited a panel of top local advertising professionals—from companies such as VMLY&R, Wunderman Thompson, DBS, Prodigious and Marina Bay Sands—to participate in the assessment to get a broader view.
|TOP 10 SCORING ADS|
|1||Vaseline||Visible Scars, Invisible Strength: Lady without Fingerprints|
|2||Apple||Chinese New Year | Shot on iPhone 11 Pro — Daughter|
|3||Apple||Behind The Mac — International Women’s Day|
|4||Singtel||In Return: Interview with Shaza Ishak|
|5||Singtel||GOMO feat. Preetipls|
|6||FWD||Cancer Insurance – My Girlfriend’s Such a Fighter|
|7||Starhub||Founding Mothers of Singapore|
|9||Dove||Rachel’s Story: Living with eczema|