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Listen Up, Ad Industry - A Boy In A Dress Isn't Revolutionary

11/11/2016 07:58 | Updated 11 November 2016
Screenshot/ Youtube/ TV commercials

When I first became a parent, certain unwritten rules quickly revealed themselves. Who knew, for example, that baby girls must immediately be decked out in pink? Or that baby boys are able to pull off any colour in the spectrum (as long as it isn't pink)? And that if we happened to buy blue trainers for one of our daughters instead of the standard-issue fuchsia, other people would think it was 'weird'?

Gender roles are imposed on us very early in life. Advertising, as one of the most influential sources of media we all consume, plays a huge part in this powerful social conditioning, and has done so throughout history - think back to those charming adverts from the 'Mad Men' golden era which used casual sexism to sell everything from cars to toothpaste. Times have certainly changed, but it seems that when it comes to targeting people by gender, we've still got some hurdles to overcome.

The recent Smyths Toys advert, animated by my team at MPC with the ad agency McCann Manchester, made waves when it featured a little boy dressed up as a princess. At the time of writing, the ad has had almost 6 million YouTube views, and received overwhelmingly positive responses on social media.

But is a little boy in a dress really revolutionary? I don't think so. Children aren't born with any preconceptions about what is and isn't socially 'acceptable' - all they want to do is learn about the world around them through play, and I believe the Smyths ad was merely showing an awareness of that exploratory nature. The truth is, when an ad like this has the power to go viral, it says a lot more about how safe the rest of the advertising industry is often playing it - and not just with regard to gender, but also things like sexuality and race - than it does about the Smyths Toys ad specifically.

There are some adverts that stand out because they have broken the mould - think back to Dove's Real Beauty campaign (now over a decade ago), right up to the more recent Always #LikeAGirl and 'This Girl Can' campaigns. Bodyform's 'Blood' is also worthy of a mention here, and it rightly won a Gold Lion at Cannes. While these examples of 'femvertising' - brands realising that female empowerment could be lucrative as well as morally commendable - are doubtlessly a step in the right direction, it's also very apparent that most of these brands were already selling to women to begin with.

Which begs the question: Where are the swathes of ads targeted at men that buck existing conventions? Or does the industry ultimately believe this would be too much of a risk to take?

One of only a few excellent examples of advertising which genuinely breaks through some long-established gender stereotypes I've seen recently is for Haig Club 'Clubman' whisky - the ad juxtaposes old-fashioned ideas of how whisky 'should' be enjoyed ("whisky is a man's drink") with a montage of both men and women enjoying whisky in reality. It's original, edgy and cool, getting its message across without seeming worthy or self-righteous, and I wish there were more like it.

Similarly, in a concerted move to combat outmoded gender stereotyping, Disney has just launched a 10-point guide for aspiring princesses, none of which focus on appearance. We're also seeing the rise of gender-neutral products like Minecraft, which has been a runaway success among both boys and girls (including my own kids).

However for the most part, it seems that focus groups and researchers have spoken, and so the industry continues to churn out predictable, safe and inoffensive ads that do the job without ruffling any feathers.

I confess to being quite surprised that the Smyths Toys ad made the news at all, but I soon realised that the enthusiastic response was proof that that public consciousness has taken a step forward - and the world of advertising needs to catch up.

So, let's raise a glass to a not-too distant future when a little boy can be a princess with no questions asked.

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