Has the UK ban on gender stereotyping really changed advertising and marketing?

Shutterstock's global survey on diversity in marketing imagery shows the UK leading the way - but what's there to improve for 2019?

It's been a year since the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned harmful gender stereotyping in UK advertising, and it looks like it's already had an effect on British brands – with a legacy that may spread to other countries.

The consequences of the ban can be seen in the latest Shutterstock survey results on diversity in marketing imagery, as announced by the company recently. In it, 74% of UK marketers have been encouraged by the ASA legislation to select certain images that represent gender diversity more, compared to a total of 57% in 2017. Interestingly, the findings show a majority of marketers in Australia, the US, Brazil and Germany agree that a regulation similar to the UK rule should be standard practice in their countries as well.

Progressive stuff, although it's natural to wonder whether such enlightenment can take place without the use of legislation. Answering this question is Lou Weiss, CMO at Shutterstock and head of the project. 

"While there is a perceived need for gender stereotyping standards and a broad understanding of the benefits of featuring diversity in campaigns," he explains, "Generation X in particular is less likely to actually increase their usage of diverse imagery than their Millennial counterparts.


"Legislation is certainly not the only way to push these things in other territories, but rather brands can set a standard for themselves and lead by example in their field."

Lou points out that the UK's pioneering in diversity is down to the country's long mixed population. "It’s no surprise that the country has been quite progressive in this regard," he says, which is nice to hear after two years and counting of Brexit drama.

A global undertaking


The research, conducted by Censuswide in October 2018, surveyed more than 2,500 marketers in Australia, Brazil, Germany, the US, and the UK.

Marketers in the countries surveyed answered questions about their opinions on using diverse imagery in campaigns and what impacted their visual decisions for the campaigns they’ve worked on over the last year. The results are particularly interesting from a generational and regional viewpoint, and they highlight who exactly is walking the walk, instead of simply talking the talk.

"Representing diversity in imagery has been a hot topic in the advertising and marketing industry over the past few years," Lou tells us about the project's origins.

"After spotting a need for a deeper understanding of marketers’ motivations and choices in selecting campaign imagery, Shutterstock carried out our first research in the UK in 2016. We then extended the research study in 2017 to include the US and Australia and now in 2018, we extended the study to include Brazil and Germany. The goal of the research is to show the changing demand for more diverse groups of people in campaign imagery around the world today and to celebrate diversity at large."

The results, below, have been interesting. 

  • Over the past 12 months, 27% of British marketers have used more images of women in their campaigns and 18% have used more images that feature gender-fluid, non-binary or androgynous models.
  • 63% of UK marketers stated that they chose to use more images which feature same sex couples due to this now representing modern day society
  • 33% of UK marketers have started to use more images featuring racially diverse models in the last 12 months.

All good news, but the research reveals that only 25% of UK marketers have started using more images featuring people with disabilities in the last year, with 27% confirming they use less of these types of images because they didn't fit with the 'brand message.'

While we're second only to Brazil in this regard with 32% of its marketers using images of the disabled, it's a doubly disappointing fact when one considers all the talk in our country of 'Paralympic legacy' and the impact of the late Stephen Hawking.

Jaren Jai Wicklund/Shutterstock

Lou is a little more positive though regarding these figures. "While we cannot predict how this wave will continue to grow and change, we absolutely value the importance of this data and that is why we track it by checking in to get a pulse on how it's changing."

"These numbers suggest that marketers are heading in a more inclusive direction and that is something that’s great to see on a global scale," he continues.

What this means for you

As a Digital Arts reader, you're likely to be influenced by branding for your work, or are occasionally asked to design for new campaigns that may make use of models to advertise a product. Perhaps as an illustrator you're asked to draw certain kinds of people, possibly carrying out certain actions or conveying certain biases. In this case, what do the Shutterstock findings mean for you, and how much can you depend on the industry to be forward thinking and keep away from biases of the past?

"There is a shift occurring in our industry as Millennial and Generation Z marketers visualise their beliefs related to diversity of race, gender and abilities in the marketing campaigns they’re creating," Lou explains.


"Creatives need to better empathise with their brand audiences as they develop campaigns and be aware of any gaps in diverse representation."

In other words, you're probably already thinking along the same lines as the industry and if not, it's time for some change to occur in your approach.

Deep machine diversity?

As Shutterstock begins to incorporate AI research into its ongoing repositioning as more of a tech name than a one-stop source of stock imagery, naturally the thorny issue of ensuring diversity looks set to become less of a challenge for marketers around the world.

"As search technology continues to advance, our customers are able to find the diverse content that they are looking for quicker than ever," Lou tells us. "Our network of contributors also has access to AI technology to enable them to select more accurate keywords for their content as they upload it to their profile."

Lucian Coman/Shutterstock

"Additionally, the creative process for products like Shutterstock Custom are aided by machine learning technology. Custom allows brands and agencies to commission custom content through a structured creative brief and brand guidelines. They can also give feedback on the content and leverage smarter briefs with machine learning technology."

Whether this will affect outcomes in next year's survey is unlikely due to the short amount of time, but looking beyond 2019, we may see deep machine learning help in the ongoing promise of fair representation in our day to day imagery - although whether such tech instead helps to preserve entrenched attitudes is an ongoing concern.

After all, when customer preferences are drilled down on a minute level, it won't be a huge surprise if images suggested by the machine follow the trend of more than a century's worth of ingrained human thinking. Can we change our attitudes in time for it to be registered by the AI solutions we create?

Read next:  2019's Visual Trends (according to stock libraries)

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