Research has found that major brands using sexist advertising risk losing wealth and power, with consumer activism against sexist and gender-stereotyping ads posing a serious threat. A new study out of the University of Portsmouth examined the social media backlash against KFC’s TV ad depicting two boys ogling a woman’s breasts, an ad which we called out for reinforcing gender stereotypes and for its sexist grooming of boys.
Lead researcher Karen Middleton said that through consumer activism, large and previously unassailable brands and organisations were now being held to account.
“There’s no longer any alternative for brands – if they hope to avoid being called out loudly on social media for contributing to social injustice, they need to consider the overall impact of what they say and do. If they are relying on old fashioned tropes, it’s now much more likely they’ll be called out,” she said.
“Our findings show how necessary it is for brands to consider the wider impact of their advertising.”
The study cited the cases of major brands H&M, Peleton and Pepsi, all of which had been accused of sexist or racist advertising, and the significant damage as a result. Although the ads were swiftly withdrawn, the costs to the companies were high. The backlash against Peleton, for example, led to an overnight drop in brand value of more than one billion pounds.
Ms Middleton cited research finding sexualising and objectifying treatment of women leads both men and women to have a diminished view of women’s competence, morality and humanity, that it normalised male aggression and the belittling of women. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, brands needed to be more aware.
“It’s not true that any publicity is good publicity – a complaint against any brand that then goes viral poses a serious risk to that brand’s wealth and power,” said Ms Middleton.