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Connecting the dots – How sexist advertising drives violence against women

November 2020

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Advertising (in)equality: The impacts on sexist advertising on women's health and wellbeing

We see as many as 5000 ads every day, so it’s no surprise that they impact our worldview.

Gender stereotypes and sexualised images of women in advertising are all around us, and influence how our society views and treats women. Research shows that sexualised and stereotyped ads promote attitudes that are linked to violence against women.

But let’s break this down. How does seeing women in lingerie, in sexualised poses or in stereotyped roles contribute to violence against women?

“Let me say this to you: disrespecting women does not always result in violence against women. But all violence against women begins with disrespecting women.”

– Malcolm Turnbull, former Prime Minister of Australia

Evidence shows that gender inequality is the underlying cause of violence against women.

There are four main forms of gender inequality that lead to violence against women and each of these is commonplace in advertising:

1. Condoning violence against women

Research by Women’s Health Victoria shows that the way advertising portrays women and girls has become increasingly sexualised over time. Women are more likely than men to be shown wearing revealing clothes or simulating sex acts, being dominated or portrayed as objects or animals.

Research shows that these portrayals of women can cause women to be viewed as less capable and less intelligent, and it makes men more tolerant of sexual harassment and violence.

“When young men interacted with a woman portrayed in a sexualised manner, they were more likely to perceive her in a sexual way and to behave aggressively towards her if they perceived she had rejected them.”

– Blake, Bastian & Denson 2018

2. Men’s control of decision-making and limits to women’s independence

While we see many women in advertising, ads in Australia are dominated by male actors and tell stories focused on men. International research shows there are twice as many male characters in ads, and they are on screen for four times as long as women. Men are more often shown as intelligent, funny, and in positions of power. Women are more likely to be shown in support roles – as the mum, girlfriend or conquest.

Showing men and women in this way reinforces gendered ideas about the roles of men and women. Men are the focal point: strong, commanding, decisive. Women are nurturers, cheerleaders and arm candy.

When women are not leading ladies, but are supporting men, the power imbalance between men and women in our society is reinforced – with men on top and women at the bottom.

Characters in advertising infographic beside Voiceover artists infographic

Infographic using four steel blue TVs and one pink TV to show that males are on screen four times more than females


3. Rigid gender roles and stereotyped constructions of masculinity and femininity

Gender stereotypes are still widespread in advertising. Women often take on caring roles: looking after children and cleaning messy kitchens. By contrast, men are more likely to be shown at work or in a public space.

The types of products that women and men are used to advertise are stereotyped too: female characters are more likely to be advertising health, beauty, cleaning and fashion products, appliances and furniture, while male characters are used to advertise electronics, cars, finance and insurance products, and food and drinks.

This stereotyping starts from a young age. Marketing to children has become increasingly gender-stereotyped, with blue and pink used to indicate whether a product is ‘for boys’ or ‘for girls’. Toys and games marketed to girls tend to focus on appearance, nurturing and cooperation, while those for boys focus on competition, dominance, independence and physical activity. And research shows this shapes children’s ideas about gender from as young as two years of age.

This means that ads are reinforcing old-fashioned ideas about the role of men and boys and women and girls in society – women stay at home and care, and men are the breadwinners.

4. Male peer relations that emphasise aggression and disrespect towards women

‘Boys will be boys’ is an outdated saying that sums up this issue. The idea that men and boys in groups have unspoken permission – even an expectation – to behave in ways that disrespect women.

Gambling and alcohol ads are especially likely to show women in sexualised or subordinate roles. Women are also portrayed as interfering with men’s freedom, leisure time and their relationships with male friends.

What seems like a harmless group of blokes ‘ranking’ women as they walk by, or complaining about their ‘nagging’ wives, is sending the signal that it is ok for men to objectify women and treat them with contempt.

Other forms of inequality and discrimination make violence more likely

People who aren’t young, white, able-bodied and heterosexual are still mostly invisible in advertising. For example, people with a disability are only reflected in 1% of ads.

We know that violence against women is more likely to occur – or may be more frequent or severe – when gender inequality intersects with other forms of inequality and discrimination, such as racism, ageism, ableism or homophobia.

So, not only does the underrepresentation of people of colour, older people, people with disabilities and people with other marginalised identities paint an unrealistic picture of what our society looks like, but it reflects and reinforces inequality and discrimination against these groups. And this can increase the likelihood, frequency and severity of violence against women.

Advertising can be a force for change 

It’s clear that there is a strong link between sexist advertising and violence against women.

From limiting speaking roles for women, to showing women in sexualised poses, relying on outdated gender stereotypes and portraying women as interfering with men’s freedom, advertising is selling harmful ideas to our community.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can start to rewrite the narrative and use the power of advertising to change the expectations and experiences of both women and men.

We can make ads that are more gender equal and more representative of the real world. We can help end violence against women.