Bending the gender rules in marketing

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Gender Bending Marketing

In 2018 the Committee of Advertising Practice will be bringing new standards to advertising based on gender representation and stereotypes in adverts. However, many brands are already changing the way that they represent gender and how products are marketed across genders.

This year John Lewis called an end to gendered clothing for children, by changing the boy/girl tags on their clothing range in store. 

John Lewis genderless clothes tags

Whilst many applauded this, the change did create quite a backlash and gained a lot of attention from the media, sparking debate on gender neutral clothes for children. Caroline Bettis, Head of Childrenswear at John Lewis, stated that “We do not want to reinforce gender stereotypes within our John Lewis collections and instead we want to provide greater choice and variety to our customers, so that parent or child can choose what they would like to wear”.

It may have been people felt uncomfortable with the gender neutral movement starting with a focus on the children’s department. If you compare the response to the John Lewis genderless children’s clothing to H&M and it’s adult gender neutral range, you will see it differed greatly. There has not been a similar backlash in H&M creating a unisex denim range, which is a 19 piece capsule marketed to either gender. The only criticism they received about the capsule collection was more focused on the style of items. The criticism referenced its leaning towards slightly traditional masculine shapes, and less for generally having the unisex clothing.

Some companies, even in 2017, are still not aware of the damage that messaging alone can do when it comes to male/female clothing and products. GAP recently caused uproar online when it produced this advert regarding a ‘his and hers’ children's top, similar in style but very different in message.

GAP children's gendered top advert

The boy is a future scholar, an intellect who uses his brain to get ahead in life. His pose is strong, confident and powerful. The girl will be known for how she socialises, sweet and playful, with her cute little cat’s ears. Her stance is smaller, more passive and less animated. It’s a message that plays to the gender stereotypes! It would appear gender free clothing for young people can feel, to some, like a step too far; however, surely messaging on gendered clothes must be better thought through than this?

If gender-free clothing for children wasn’t popular with everyone, a decision that was better received was Toys ‘R’ Us changing how it marketed the brand, both in the UK and abroad. In Sweden they have adapted their advertising to be less gender stereotypical. The publicity photographs for Nerf Guns featured girls, and boys were shown with teddies and dolls. Plus the entire pre-Christmas catalogue was gender neutral.

‘Let Toys be Toys’ is a UK charity with a huge presence on social media, with over 30 thousand followers and lots of people discussing and promoting this topic daily, which goes to show that many people view gender stereotypes as a bit behind the times.

When Harrods unveiled a new toy department, the store had been organised by themes and not by gender. Toys ‘R’ Us stores got rid of gender signs above toys, and several other large retailers followed suit. However, disappointingly, the Toys ‘R’ Us Christmas ads in the UK appear to have taken a step backwards by depicting the more traditional gender stereotypes.

Some brands are using their advertising to break with traditional gender roles within families, something which will be compulsory when the rules change in 2018. Indesit was ahead of the curve with their ‘Do it Together’ campaign, which included TV and a mini web series culminating in a big family switch-up day on May 9th this year, encouraging families to swap the roles they traditionally assume in the home. 


At the end of the ad, which shows the man carrying out the majority of the housework before then going to work himself, it asks “would you have reacted the same way if it had been a woman?”. We are not used to this narrative in advertising for domestic housework, it’s become normal to see a woman in this 'domestic goddess' role. This isn’t to say there aren’t men out there doing housework (according to the advert 44% do). So whilst that figure is rising, isn’t it only fair to reflect that and enable the rebalance?

What all companies need to be aware of are the changes to advertising standards. Brands need to understand that they play a part in creating gender stereotypes or portraying either gender in a negative light. In the future we must recognise and embrace gender diversity and think about how best to represent those changes.

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