A Subtle Violence: Gender & Marketing

Babbel’s employee initiative takes on issues of difference and diversity in marketing and advertising.

The second installment of the Strangers Talks series – the Babbel employee initiative exploring issues of difference and diversity – was an exploration of representation and gender in marketing. Looking at imagery from marketing campaigns across different moments in advertising’s history, Babbel’s Ben Davies unpacked the persistence of stereotypes in all manner of marketing, and the often insidious messages they carry. It was provocative enough to warrant a bit of follow-up discussion, here.

This was, on the surface anyway, a rather specific topic, given your talk was effectively one of the inaugural presentations in the series. And I guess I’m wondering whether you were working less from a place of principle or aspiration, and more from a place of necessity. Did the intersection of gender and marketing seem particularly pressing to you for some reason?

I think for me, this was very much a necessity. Within the movement for gender equality, there is discussion happening constantly about portrayals of women and men in various mediums, be it in television shows or in music, but what struck me as odd was that images from marketing rarely made it into discussions on portrayals of gender. Perhaps this is because we don’t consider marketing anything more than this annoying thing that tries to get us to spend our money, but the fact remains that images from advertising make up a large portion of the imagery we are exposed to everyday. Even on an unconscious level, this will start to have an effect on a person.

So for that reason, I think it’s important to be aware that marketing is something that needs consideration when looking at gender equality, and something that can actually, if unchecked, be quite detrimental in the fight for equality. That’s why I wanted to look at marketing throughout the last century or so, because what seemed shocking fifty years ago in terms of stereotypes is in fact still present in a lot of marketing nowadays, albeit presented differently. I also wanted to show my colleagues in marketing that if they are interested in gender equality, it absolutely does play a role in the work they do every day – just upon first impression, the link between gender and marketing may not seem so explicit.

You work in the Didactics team. Are there ways marketing and its ethics bleed into your work?

Of course – marketing is the medium by which the product we craft in Didactics is communicated to customers, and forms their first impression of the product. On a simple level, we often check all external texts including those used across a range of marketing channels. And as a lot of us in Didactics have learned about gender theory as part of our studies in languages, we are very tuned in to how gender is portrayed in any marketing communication.
Babbel has a very wide range of users, and with such a heterogeneous group, we have to ensure that our courses suit everyone. On one level, this refers to learning style, so we research a lot when it comes to our methodology to ensure we cater for all kinds of learners, but on another level, we want this diverse audience to be able to relate to our product. This is why we strive to show all kinds of people and characters in all of our courses, and with the focus being everyday conversation, you’ll hear people from all different backgrounds as the figures in our dialogues.
So, given that we put a lot of thought into our product, it is essential to us that this is also part of how Babbel is communicated to our learners via marketing.

You opened with a bit of a dive into the history of racialized marketing campaigns. How does the construction of racial stereotypes inform an examination of gender, for you?

Firstly, I think you can’t consider gender without first considering race – the two are inextricably linked. Both represent ways in which people can be segmented (and thus stereotyped upon first sight), and both are ways in which groups of people have historically been (and still are) discriminated against.
With marketing, I wanted to start by looking at some examples of racialized advertising from the time that print advertising became wide-spread, purely because for us looking back retroactively, it’s absolutely shocking. So Europeans could maintain power over the colonies and the non-white Europeans, black people were depicted as monsters, subservients, or just ridiculous caricatures, with the intent of showing them to have been tamed, and then used as figures to sell products to their colonisers. With the anti-apartheid movement and fight for racial equality, society learned how completely unacceptable these depictions were, and so there was a marked shift. Gender, in effect, took up where race long had been. Rather than emphasising differences in race, the easiest way to emphasise any difference between groups of people for the purposes of selling things was gender.
In the 50’s, for example, this manifested in the model of the perfect, obedient housewife and her important businessman husband. As with racialized marketing, we can look back now at images used in advertising from this era and clearly see how problematic it was. However, what we may not be so good at today is looking at images from advertising around us now and seeing the stereotypes of men and women still present – just in a different form of the 50’s. So, I wanted to start with looking at the racialised campaigns to see how people reacted, and then instantly, compare this with their reactions to later images from the 50’s and nowadays one after another.

So far, these talks have been pretty well-attended, and the discussions they’ve provoked have been pretty robust, and even emotional. As one of the architects of this project, was that something you anticipated? Has it changed how you think about the project, moving forward?

We’ve spoken a lot about our motivations for starting this series of talks, and each of the “architects” has their own motivation. For me personally, I sensed that there is a lot of interest around these topics, but people maybe lack the necessary language, or are maybe not sure where to start, as something like “gender” encompasses so much. Perhaps for some, there is also the fear of saying the wrong thing.
What I had hoped for was that we would use these talks to educate people, and to empower them to discuss these topics, and that’s why it’s just fantastic to see so much discussion being provoked – even weeks after the talk took place.
Going forward, I think there needs now to be space for more discussion. We’re going to look into more than just talks to give people this space and hopefully continue to empower individuals to talk about these things.

Are there specific forms you see that taking?

Currently, we have a few things in the pipeline. The first is to introduce a coffee session after each talk to act as a space for any immediate discussion or indeed discussion about other topics. This is definitely needed as we are starting to find that we run out of time each session because lots of people want to contribute their perspective. Which is great!
Secondly, quite a few others have expressed their interest in helping, and these new “strangers” are going to do things like look at getting external speakers in, setting up a reading group, and even liaising with HR on diversity-related trainings. I’m really looking forward to seeing each of these things get off the ground and to see what else develops out of this.