Australian consumers can see when ads trade in gender stereotypes and sexism, even if the industry standards body can’t, according to new academic research.

A partnership between RMIT University and Women’s Health Victoria explored community responses to gender portrayals in advertising: ten focus groups with 46 women and 28 men in metropolitan and regional Victoria were asked to discuss advertisements that had attracted complaints or media attention.

“Our research suggests the advertising industry’s standards for judging sexism are, like the world depicted in the television series Mad Men, stuck in the past,” the researchers wrote in an article for The Conversation.

Ad Standards rejects most complaints about ads (84% in 2018) although it is considering them individually and not the cumulative effect of such ads; the focus group participants, however, noted the “pervasiveness” of gender stereotypes, with women often depicted as mothers, homemakers or sex objects, while men appear in positions of leadership and power or action-oriented roles.

These portrayals were seen to be out of step with contemporary society, the study said.

But while participants felt that such portrayals were problematic, these were so common that they had become normalised – and this was perceived to have a desensitising effect.

As a result, participants said they often did not consciously react to problematic gender portrayals, which the authors see as a significant issue in the context of the country’s self-regulatory system for advertising, which relies on consumers being motivated to make complaints.

But being desensitised doesn’t mean the participants don’t understand how they can be affected. Ads that sexualise women or focus on women’s appearance, for example, are sometimes presented as empowering, but participants were concerned that these could set unrealistic standards for women.

They also felt these could have a negative impact on intimate relationships, body image, self-esteem and mental health. Several participants further expressed concern that these portrayals could contribute to violence against women.

And they observed that children were a particularly vulnerable population group who internalise expectations about gender from advertising.

Sourced from Women’s Health Victoria, The Conversation; additional content by WARC staff