Opinionista Ute Kuhlmann 29 May 2018

Rinse and Repeat: The dirty laundry of negative gender portrayal

Following a recent ruling against sexist gender stereotyping, I complained to the Advertising Standards Authority about five Samsung ad banners, ironically on International Women’s Day.

There are five tech products advertised on big banners: a mobile phone, a fridge, a TV, a washing machine and a watch. One of the products is advertised by a woman, the other four by men. Question: Who advertises the washing machine?”

Have you decided on your answer?

I played this quiz with a small sample of South African 20- to 75-year-olds, men and women. Every single one of them responded “the woman”.

Chances are, you did, too, which is a brief example of gender stereotyping at work.

When I posed the question, I didn’t used my “outraged feminist” voice, but my “entertaining quiz master” voice. It made little difference to the response: the women’s (young and old) answers were instant, often accompanied by an exasperated little sigh.

My lay woman’s interpretation of these reactions was that my quiz participants did not particularly appreciate the fact that it was their gender associated with doing the laundry, and that the advert was confining them, yet again, to the entrenched role of being responsible for the chores in the household. Seeing how there were arguably at least three “gender neutral” products advertised (I’ll spell it out for you: the mobile phone, the TV and the watch), this series of adverts might be a picture-book example of “negative gender portrayal”, which is defined as “advertising that portrays a person or persons of a certain gender in a manner that restricts and entrenches the role of persons of such gender in society or sections of society”

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) recently ruled on sexist gender stereotyping in the case of an SABC radio advert for online payment of your TV licence.

Luckily you [the woman] now no longer have to subject the man in your life to the horrors of a shopping mall when TV licence payment time comes around‚” the advert states‚ “… while you get to follow the sound of those heels calling your name.”

The ASA ruled against the radio station running the ad (and the SABC) saying:

The storyline of the commercial is reliant on an assumption that the man has to pay the TV licence. Previously‚ he would have had to go to the mall to do so‚ and his female partner would have had to persuade him to do this. Now‚ he can sit on the couch and pay it. But either way‚ the man has to pay the TV licence. The idea that the woman could have simply paid the licence while she was at the mall is not entertained. The communication is‚ as the Complainant highlights‚ dependant on an assumption that women are financially or mentally incapable of paying the TV licence if a man is around to do the job.”

The ASA also said:

What the Directorate finds untenable is not the humorous stereotyping of the genders‚ but the underlying assumptions regarding the role and ability of each gender.”

This “precedent” popped into my mind when I came across the five Samsung ad banners described above, ironically on none other than International Women’s Day.

The ads show Bobby van Jaarsveld endorsing a mobile phone; Cameron van der Burgh endorsing a TV; Masego Maponyane endorsing a watch; Reuben Riffel endorsing a refrigerator – and Jo-Ann Strauss advertising the Samsung AddwashTM washing machine.

If for anyone, like myself, Ms Strauss is not a household name, all they see is a pretty woman endorsing a household appliance (on me pointing out the ad, my partner quipped: “Is she a soapie star?” You have to forgive us the bad puns.)

So I went ahead and complained to the ASA, fully convinced that airing my dirty laundry would be sufficient and a ruling against the Samsung advert a shoo-in. Turns out (with apologies to the chicken and egg), I shouldn’t have counted my laundry before my clean shirts were hatched and dry.

The complaint images:

The ASA dismissed the complaint, with contorted arguments and – if you are able to laugh off these things – a hilariously gender-stereotyping ruling. What Samsung argues and the ASA agrees with is: Jo-Ann Strauss does not advertise the washing machine because she is a woman, i.e. “the association of Ms. Strauss with the washing machine has nothing to do with her gender but [sic] rather due to the brand she has built for herself.”

Apparently Jo-Ann Strauss “has built her brand on the ideals of being a great businesswoman as well as being a great mother”.

And “the reason why Ms Strauss was chosen as a brand ambassador for the washing machine is because none of the male brand ambassadors have built their brands on being parents”.

The ASA ruling:

Now you don’t have to be a lady detective like Precious Ramotswe or Miss Phryne Fisher to spot the obvious: How does being “a great mother” or building your brand on “being parents” associate you with a washing machine? Samsung does not use Ms Strauss to advertise a hormone-measuring baby monitor, an app-based breast milk extractor or indeed a mobile phone safe for parents and children which blocks ads and pornography. No, in both Samsung’s and the ASA’s minds, Ms Strauss being a great mother means the washing machine will make her life easier because, obviously, its her job to do the laundry!

Most parents would agree that the laundry is a much larger chore since they started a family. And let’s face it, even Samsung’s AddwashTM washing machine with its “value proposition … to transform an ordinary product into a multifunctional product, thus making life easier” does not load itself with dirty clothes, nor does it hang the clean clothes, and fold and put them away when they are dry.

Being able to “control and monitor your washing using a smartphone App”, which the AddwashTM allows you to do, will doubtless improve it users’ lives tenfold – and it still begs the question how it is not a negative gender portrayal to advertise that it’s the woman’s job to do the laundry? Or indeed that it’s clearly unthinkable that a male celebrity would build their advertising brand on being a parent.

In their attempt to bend the facts to avoid a “negative gender portrayal” decision, the ASA comes up with some memorable feats of imagination:

When considering the commercial from an objective approach, the Directorate notes that the contents of the banner are product relevant. Cameron van der Burgh, who is famous for swimming, is shown against a television screen with a visual of water; Masego Maponyane, who is a personality associated with style, is shown with a stylish watch; musician Bobby van Jaarsveld is shown listening to music on his S8, and chef Reuben Riffel promotes a fridge.”

I rest my case.

Still, let me share my favourite lines from the decision with you (bear with me if I quote the whole paragraph):

The placement of Ms Strauss with the washing machine, although perhaps unfortunate, given that she is the only female ambassador, cannot realistically be understood as an entrenchment of her role as a woman. It is a reflection of her reputation as a successful business woman and mother who successfully juggles work and home. There is also a link that as a model and the founder of the Princess Project, she is associated with beautiful clothes. A washing machine ties in with this aspect of her reputation. (my emphasis)

As they say, there is no such thing as a free princess outfit. You might get to look beautiful and marry the prince, but don’t expect that it will all be mobile phones, watches and TV from there.

That load of dirty laundry is waiting to be juggled. DM

Ute Kuhlmann is an academic publishing consultant who believes in justice, grassroots power and buying local. Speaking up against resistance without being aggressive is what she studies and teaches at the aikido martial arts dojo, as well as in her practice as a Leadership Embodiment coach.

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