Skip to main content

For advertisers, job number one is to sell, not to tackle social issues. But recently, some ads are doing both: betting on their ability to win over consumers by being progressive, as well as persuasive.

Brands have won attention for championing young girls' confidence; tackling the stereotypes applied to women in the workplace; and eschewing photo retouching that helps to create unrealistic body images. And it doesn't just apply to women: Marketers have also won applause for declaring that beefy machismo is not a singular ideal by which to judge men; and for showing fathers as loving and competent contributors to the household rather than laughable doofuses.

But while some are doing better, less than half of Canadians feel that advertising is less sexist than it was a decade ago, according to a new survey conducted by research firm the Gandalf Group on behalf of Advertising Standards Canada, the industry's self-regulatory organization. The annual study measures consumers' attitudes toward advertising – but this year it did so with a particular focus on portrayals of men and women in ads.

"We are always looking at consumer attitudes toward advertising, and this is one area that we thought wasn't explored fully," said Peter White, senior vice-president of operations at ASC.

Of 1,564 people surveyed, 62 per cent said at least some of the ads they see are sexist toward women, and 41 per cent said they see ads that are sexist toward men.

Those mean different things for each gender. These are the most-cited examples of unfair treatment of each gender in ads, according to the survey.

And men and women feel differently about sexism in ads: Women are far more likely to find it unacceptable to see sexist content in ads, or partial nudity, than men. (One notable exception was that men were more likely than women to find unrealistic male body images unacceptable in ads.)

Sexist depictions of both women and men are among the advertising content that a vast majority of Canadians find unacceptable. Demeaning portrayals of people with disabilities, mistreatment of animals, racism, bullying, ageism and violence topped the list as most unacceptable.

But while consumers say that sexism is unacceptable, the survey also raises questions about whether there is a compelling commercial reason for advertisers to paint a more progressive picture in their ads. For those that objectify women through a sex-sells strategy, put either gender in outdated roles, or depict unrealistic body ideals for men or women – is there a price to pay?

Asked how they feel when they see sexist ads, most of those surveyed said they feel annoyed (46 per cent) while a further 15 per cent feel resigned. Only 9 per cent feel angry or outraged.

"The biggest surprise is the fact that consumers aren't that angry," Mr. White said.

In fact, less than 40 per cent said they were much less likely to buy an advertiser's product if its ads are sexist. More than half said it either had no impact, or made them only "somewhat" less likely to buy the product.

Still, while outrage may not be the dominant reaction, the research does point to a feeling that such gender portrayals are unacceptable – and an opportunity for advertisers to better reflect consumers' own attitudes in ads, by changing those portrayals.

"Advertisers need to understand that some of their audience is affected by this stuff," Mr. White said. "… There is a risk to not paying attention."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said a survey found that women were far less likely to find it unacceptable to see sexist content in ads, or partial nudity, than men. In fact, women are far more likely to find this content unacceptable.