Maddie Cullen
16 May 2018

It’s been a year since Unilever promised to eradicate any traditional gender stereotypes from their advertising. For a business with dozens of brands in its portfolio, this is a big change and a huge step in the right direction.

The Advertising Standards Authority are also cracking down on how marketing presents gender. This came after a study revealed how marketing affects people’s expectations of how others should ‘look/behave’.

Beach body ready protein world ad                (Image: B & T)

So with such a big player as Unilever making a considered change and the ASA taking a stricter approach, are other brands making the effort to move away from harmful gender stereotypes?


The clothing sector is one of the most obvious places that gender plays a big role. Especially kids and men’s clothing. As an adult we have a choice on how we express ourselves with what we wear. Women frequently cross the gender sections when buying anything from jeans to shoes. Children, on the other hand, seem to face the strictest rules when it comes to pink for girls and blue for boys.

However, it’s also an area of the sector that has some brands striving to break the monotonous colour boundaries. John Lewis made headlines when they removed gender labels from baby clothes and released a gender-neutral line to suit the growing number of ‘theybys’. Those are babies raised without gender boundaries (for anyone as confused as we were when we realised it wasn’t a new Doctor Who villain).

John Lewis have still kept their floral dresses and a range of colours, but the labels now read ‘boys & girls’ or ‘girls & boys’ to let children wear whatever feels right to them.

John Lewis gender neutral baby clothes

Unfortunately, not all brands are quite so forward thinking. Clarks received a lot of backlash online from their kid’s shoe range. The girls had ‘Dolly Babe’ styles and the boys had ‘leader’ styles. This was blatant sexist targeting and a bad move from them.

They apologised and promised to remove the shoes stating that it was an old line of theirs which had those terms. However, a lot of people used this as an excuse to properly discuss their gender stereotyping across the whole store. Parents complained that boy’s shoes are robust, made for active exploring, and girl’s shoes have flimsy soles that aren’t suitable for outdoor play.

Clarks shoes sexist gender marketing

Play isn’t about gender and brands should try and reflect this in the apparel they make.

Adult clothing, on the other hand, has a string of indie start-ups that are bringing entirely gender-neutral options.

Mainstream brands are also taking note. Zara has a line of unisex basics with grey hoodies and blue jeans as staples. And Selfridges switched the ground floor of their London store to ‘Agender’. This housed a collection of clothing with no labels or gender specifics in plain white packaging.

Selfridges gender and retail               (Image: Dazed Digital)

However, a lot of gender-neutral lines are criticised for being masculine. H&M tackled this in their unisex denim line by including dresses, creating a full line of neutral clothing that takes inspiration from both typically male and female clothing.

Gender marketing H&M denim dress               (Image: Konbini)

As this unisex clothing movement comes to mainstream we’re likely to see other brands follow suit. It’s a great statement from brands who are involved and will hopefully encourage others to do the same. Clothing is a very clear and obvious way we express ourselves. Switching them to gender neutral is a way to change a very public thing.


The cosmetics and skincare sector has always been heavily geared towards women which makes sense when they’re spending £40 on average compared to men’s measly £4. However, this imbalance more likely comes from men not seeing anything available for them to buy. With women featuring in all ads and marketing, it also stems from feeling unwelcome in the industry.

Messy make up bag               (Image: Pintrest)

Women have a lot more pressure on them for how they look which drives a lot of beauty buying. But makeup and haircare can also be a fun way to express yourself, which is why more men are beginning to get involved.

Lush is one brand that’s known for an inclusive nature. The Instagram hastag #lushmen has loads of guys celebrating their love of the brand and their products, showing that delicious smelling bath bombs are for all! Lush say that they have no gender specifics and instead strive for benefits and value from their products. Their black, neutral packaging could be an important contributor to this. Packaging is often what sets things apart as either masculine or feminine.

Asos is another great example. Their Face + Body category spans men’s and women’s pages with the same products, from makeup to skincare, showing that they’re available for everyone to buy. This is a step in the right direction as it opens up all products to both genders.

Asos Men's makeup

Unisex cosmetics are much easier to position online as there’s privacy of buying that the retail environment doesn’t provide for some shoppers. Young men (16-24) especially trust beauty bloggers and influencers over sales staff because of the safety of an online environment.

However, this doesn’t mean that brands shouldn’t strive to be more inclusive in their stores in who they hire and what they sell.

CoverGirl is a good example. They partnered with beauty guru James Charles and featured him in their ads to give a face to male beauty stars and encourage others to try out longer lashes. (Once you glow up, there’s no going back).

Covergirls James Charles and others               (Image: Bustle)

L’Oreal also used a male model in one of their beauty campaigns and a year later featured trans model Munroe Berdgof in their True Match foundation ads.

Brands are definitely opening up visibility with a more diverse range of models which is so great for all those kids who need to see someone else like them.

L' Oreal diverse marketing                (Image: Campaign)

It also taps into the other half of the population who are willing to spend money. It doesn’t make sense to ignore certain genders. Brands can encourage a whole new set of people to interact and fall in love with them if they open up marketing.

By encouraging people, regardless of gender, to shop for beauty it breaks down the traditional stereotypes that women have to wear makeup, or that it’s only for them.

Other Sectors

Unfortunately, sexism and negative stereotypes go beyond typically gendered products. Cleaning supplies still use women to wash up and DIY brands use men as their spokespeople. And yet in real life, women are putting up shelves and men are scrubbing pans.

DIY masculine ads

As we mentioned, Unilever made a positive switch a year ago, but not all brands have done the same. Some are still floundering in the traditional gender stereotypes.

Audi released an especially shocking ad that received a whole swathe of backlash. To promote selling used cars in China it used a wedding scene. The mother of the groom checks over the wife as if she was an animal – checking teeth and ears. This is a prime example of women as objects in advertising. This was two steps backwards into the Mad Men era of sexist ads. They apologised for the misjudged ad and haven’t used it since.

On the other hand, Pot Noodle recently racked up views for a positive message. Their ad featured a guy training in a gym for a boxing match. Instead of the predictable fighter, however, it ends with him as the attractive round card holder.

The ad received great feedback and people loved it. It goes to show how beneficial breaking stereotypes are. Brands will receive much better engagement and loyalty if they show a good message opposed to a hurtful one.

Some brands still pander to traditional views of men and women, but for every bad one there seems to be a positive one. With the ASA’s crack down on equality and public outrage, brands are forced in the right direction.

Sheknows Media hold a #Femvertising award that celebrates ads which represent men and women in a positive way. These awards also bring attention to all the others not contributing to a better movement.

Femvertising awards negative content                (Image: Slideshare)

Not all brands are doing enough for gender stereotyping, with some shockingly backward ads still reaching the light of day. However, the inspiring messages are still growing year on year. And the movement of positive marketing can’t be understated. Every time a brand represents men and women in a better way it might reach someone who needs it.

Toady’s consumers don’t want negative gender stereotypes, so it only makes sense for brands to listen and adapt.

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