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The ASA’s ban on gender stereotypes shows how bad a lot of advertising is

Laziness has crept silently into advertising, thanks to creativity getting pushed to one side in favour of data and comfy metrics.  It’s time to bring creativity back.

I had placed this post on the back-burner, thinking that its window had closed.  It was one of those articles that gets written but was not destined to see the light of a digital day.  Responsibility for its re-awakening lies exclusively with my, rather belatedly, stumbling upon this post from Jeff Huggins: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/dancing-advertisings-grave-self-fulfilling-curse-jeff-huggins/

I shall let you decide whether that’s a blessing or not.

Eat your greens, there’s no pudding until you do.

A little over a week ago (18th June, 2019) the ASA announced that they would start enforcing a ban on gender stereotyping in advertising.  It wasn’t big news. It was a footnote on an otherwise steady news day.  It was something that the ad industry had been warned was coming, knew about and really weren’t too concerned over.  It was just another rule being applied.

Rules are needed when there is a problem to be dealt with. They’re needed to address problems when those problems can’t be sorted by the protagonists themselves. Regulators operate as our industry’s parents: telling us to eat our greens, brush our teeth and share with our sister. They are there to tell us that if we can’t sort this out nicely, between ourselves, then they will bloody well sort it and no one will be happy with the outcome.

And that is what happened. The ASA made enough noise about gender stereotyping, there were enough warnings. Now, there’s a rule.

A necessary rule that shouldn’t be necesssary

Gender equality is not a concept. It’s not simply an amorphous construct that the Guardian obsesses over or ‘feminazis’ march for. It’s a real thing. It’s an important thing. It’s not a done deal, it’s something that sadly still remains on the horizon in so many ways but it’s getting closer. Men now fold washing and make meals and take time off work to care for their children. While that happens, women lead our industries, build our economy and make difficult political choices.  There’s more to do, but things are very different from how they were a generation or two ago.

Whether you define this change as a crisis in gender identity or a new dawn, it’s plain for all but the most stubbornly myopic to see that we live in a world where the old rules and definitions no longer apply or are applied.

We should not require a regulator for our advertising to reflect this change. Agencies and clients should be leading this change, driving it, normalising it, communicating it, reflecting it. And they should be doing that because it’s what they’re here to do – the agencies especially.

The death of creativity

Stereotypes, i.e. over-generalised beliefs about a particular category of people, are lazy. They’re easy, obvious, simple. Stereotypes are quite simply not creative. The mere fact the ASA feels a need to ban stereotypes in advertising shows just how far from creative thinking we have come.

I am not going to preach about the golden age of advertising – it shows my age if nothing else – because I believe that every age of advertising has been golden to those whom it has inspired, captivated and enthralled.  And great advertising has done those things. All of the great people I have met in the industry were inspired themselves by ads they had seen and the creativity of others.

Today I fear, we have put creativity on the back-burner in favour of data, dial tests, focus groups and expert panels of consumers who are, by their own creation, nothing more than echo-chambers held together by the weight and gravity they acquire through their own sense of self-importance.

Great ads used to tell stories. They may not be the stories that we would tell today, but that’s the great thing about storytelling, it evolves. Today stories have been replaced with cheap gimmicks and lazy thinking. Easy has replaced creative.  Data has replaced imagination. Paid for opinions have replaced intuition.

I am not advocating the return of a black-clad man with a box of confectionary breaking into women’s bedrooms, that’s just creepy and anyway, the revivalism often displayed in advertising is as lazy as the stereotyping. What I am calling for is a return to creativity. A revivalism of purpose, not hackneyed stalker campaigns.

Stories, properly conceived and well-delivered, hold the consumer’s imagination and attention. The majority of great ad campaigns have had storytelling at their heart. Stories are not cliché. Stories are not lazy. Stories don’t stereotype.

When, how and what?

There’s no headstone or memorial to the death of creative advertising upon which a wreath can be laid. No date carved in stone nor mark in a ledger. This death has been slow and quiet, and in many ways, unseen. And it’s a passing which could and should have been prevented.

Jeff’s great piece illustrates how we as marketers have talked ourselves in to a world where efficiency and data are the only matters at hand.  Where the numbers that are perceived to matter are the only ones that have ever mattered.  And it’s that type of thinking that is leading to the sort of laziness that requires legislation.

Let me humbly copy and paste from Jeff, who has, himself copied and pasted from Alex Murrell and others:

“As Alex Murrell notes in his recent response to the “everything-is-different-now” crowd, (https://medium.com/@alexjmurrell/magpie-marketing-29b6c5315a9b).  The desire to find a disruptive idea has been replaced by the desire to find a disruptive technology. But instead of aiding progression, we hinder it.” According to Jennifer Romaniuk, Research Professor at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science, “Today’s world of never-ending technological breakthroughs creates the illusion that jumping from bandwagon to bandwagon is moving us forward, when we are really going around and around in circles.”

“To understand advertising is to understand it’s the same circular trap we’ve always been caught in: The audience isn’t paying attention. They think most ads are stupid. Given an opportunity, or the technology, to dismiss bad advertising, they will dismiss it. If the ad doesn’t offer something of value (i.e. information, entertainment, or a service), it will be ignored — perhaps even hated. That’s no reason to be defeated or demoralized. Or to stop advertising. That’s simply the playing field we play on … the set of obstacles we’re paid to overcome.

Technology (as it’s used today) is permission for people who are intimidated by the creative challenge to avoid the challenge. Instead of coming up with perception-changing, brand-defining ideas, it’s permission to flood the market with purely rational, transactional, instantly forgettable information. To create category-generic “communications,” not advertising.”

And that breeds laziness.

Consumers want creativity. They want stories. They want advertising that they can be engaged with and moved by rather than a feeling they’re being sold to. And they want to see creativity in all channels and areas. They want to see creative concepts carried through TV spots, into digital and realised OOH. As the digital arm to many an agency’s campaign planning, implementation and delivery we see how much better creative campaigns perform. How they live longer in the consumer’s memory and last longer across all channels.

At a recent brown bag session with a really exciting and highly creative advertising and brand agency, I was asked by one of the team how they could counter the data thrown at clients by media agencies and partners.  What could they create of their own.  My advice was that they stopped focusing on the efficiency data that the numbers guys can produce and start instead to look at effectiveness.  Campaigns and ideas that work, not just numbers of people reached.  Data drives stereotypical adverts, creativity reminds us of how amazing it is to be human.

As ‘the digital guy’ in many an agency relationship over the past few years, it’s been my personal joy to work on some truly wonderful and creative campaigns and watch those campaigns fly. I’ve put up with dirge too. What I have learned over time is that great ads and campaigns achieve great numbers.  They’re devised for their audience, not for an algorithm.  Creative ideas give me something to work with and a greater ability to use the technologies available in the best ways.  When it’s the other way around, no-one gets the best.

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