Give men a fair hearing

  • July 13, 2009
{mosimage}To mark this past Fathers’ Day, The National Post carried an interesting feature about negative images of men in general, and fathers in particular, in consumer advertising.

Most of the complaints centred on portrayals of clumsiness and laziness with household tasks. Some men have found the portrayals offensive enough to file complaints with the Advertising Standards Council, and a few have been upheld.

Are we now to view men as the newest, unfairly stereotyped media target group? More than one reader doubtless wondered if there are any aggrieved groups yet to be heard from. The very wealthy, perhaps, or the exceptionally good-looking. Surely they have not yet  formed an advocacy and support group to help them carry the burden and combat the prejudice.

Still, now that the leisure season is upon us, I made a point of un-muting the commercials for a week to see if there was some new gender stereotyping going on. In an effort to keep it fair, I included news, entertainment, sports and home improvement shows.

Perhaps I stumbled on to a particularly egalitarian week, but there weren’t many gender-stereotyped portrayals. Most of the ads were for groceries and fast food, cars, household and home improvement products, toiletries, movies and other TV shows. Of those that showed people for more than 10 seconds, most were in family groupings and did not feature the kind of gender stereotyping noted above.

But some did: Foodland Ontario’s dad seems to spill all the apples in the store while trying to buy just a few, and the mom in a Tide commercial proudly holds up a white shirt with a fond, beaming smile. To me, both are a far cry from reality. Men and women alike have caused avalanches in produce departments, but neither do it often. Women probably do more laundry than men, and the only time anyone would give a shirt that kind of smile would be if they’d found money in the pocket.

There are a few other stereotypes that come up often enough to be annoying: viewing a new home, he is thrilled by the circuit breakers and other mechanics, while she’s enchanted by the huge closets. At a house-warming or post-renovation party, the men cheer when they see that huge fridge full of beer, while the women are upstairs admiring, once again, a closet that could easily hold a boutique.

If a relatively small number of complaints are made about such matters, I suspect it’s because people take advertising less seriously than news and entertainment. The Catholic Civil Rights League has been promoting the fair treatment of Catholicism in the media for almost 25 years. On average, no more than a fourth of the inquiries we make in any one year involve advertising, and in most cases the problem is less the ad itself than the event or philosophy being promoted.

This is not to say that problematic portrayals in advertising should be ignored or will have no impact. Research may be inconclusive, but big advertisers spend big budgets in the belief that ads will influence us. Most of the changes that we have seen in the portrayals of women reflect changes that have happened in society. Similarly, there is not much doubt that most men do more around the house than their fathers and grandfathers did, and that is the main reason why portrayals have changed. 

We also need to remember that the biases and good-taste thresholds that govern entertainment tend to be reflected in advertising. We occasionally see satirical depictions of nuns and priests in advertising, but I can’t recall seeing a representative of a minority religion depicted in the same way. When pro-life advertising was taken down from billboards in several cities over the past year, it was after only a small number of complaints. On the other hand, we can’t be sure how many complaints it takes to restrict the advertising of birth control pills directed at teenagers, or condom giveaways on public streets, since in Toronto at any rate no one has yet managed to put an end to either of those things, despite numerous complaints.

Even if you can’t quite buy into the theory that men are a disadvantaged group in society, it is worth paying attention to advertising and sharing any concerns with the advertiser and the media outlet. It’s one of the tools they use to gauge audience taste and community standards overall. It probably helped put a stop to images of women mopping the floor in their best clothes, so maybe such feedback will help bring other portrayals a little closer to reality. Or at least make the unreality more even-handed.

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