Take Back the AD!

FEM Inc., Media Landscape, Women in Technology

Today we are announcing the results of our new research conducted in partnership with and sponsored by Google, which examines the effects of certain types of gender representations in digital advertising.

“This research challenges the notion that ‘sex sells’ by examining the often unobserved and long-term effects of sexualized advertising. In a digital world where marketers are tempted to hyper-focus on easily measured metrics like clicks, they risk alienating customers by ignoring harder to measure but far more important emotional responses to ads. Furthermore, the effects of these messages on subconscious beliefs about women raise real ethical questions about how advertising can perpetuate harmful stereotypes.” said Dr. Meghana Bhatt, lead researcher on the project and Co-Founder of FEM Inc.

The study examined how a wide range of digital users react to digital ads that varied in the degree to which women were sexualized or objectified in the imagery. With funding and research support from Google, FEM Inc. led the study and focused on the link between short-term exposure to sexualized imagery in advertisements and well-established indicators of long-term outcomes:

  • Sexism (hostile and benevolent) among men
  • Self-objectification among women: beliefs around self-worth – whether they value themselves based on what they can do versus how they look
  • Basic emotional responses to the ads including irritation and/or a desire to purchase the advertised product.

The research found that sexualized ads tended to provoke significant negative emotional responses from female users, including a decreased desire to purchase the advertised product and that even very short-term exposure had a measurable effect on sexism in male users.

“Now there’s stronger support for the idea that portraying strong, professional and empowering women resonates more with the majority of users. With this study, we have found new evidence that proves there is a direct link between the portrayal of women in digital ads and the emotional responses in users – publishers and brand advertisers ignore this at their peril,” said Rachel Payne, CEO of FEM Inc.

One the most important results in the study found that males in the middle management stage of their career – when they are most likely to be hiring young women and making decisions around who to promote – were most susceptible to these images and demonstrated a statistically significant increase in benevolent sexism after only one exposure to a sexualized ad. Benevolent sexism is linked to a belief that women have fundamentally different capabilities from men and need special treatment or protection. This can directly impact a woman’s career if she is not given the same opportunity to take on challenging projects or a demanding role within the company – especially important in fields such as technology, finance and the military.

“Given the prevalence of sexualized imagery in ads as well as provocative image thumbnails used by many content recommendation providers on the web, this finding is striking in both its impact and longer-term implications,” said Payne. “The next area of study would be to focus on the prevalence of these ads, the magnitude of these effects and overall ad efficacy – with this study, we found early indicators that these ads simply do not perform for most users, only a predictable few.”

To read or download the complete study please visit our website at www.fem-inc.com/research.

This study was sponsored by Google’s Trust & Safety team with project leadership from research partner Jennifer McDonnell Gennai.

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  1. Bob Schubring

    I appreciate your sexist comments about how suggestible my fellow males are, when exposed to dangerous images that you arbitrarily classify as “sexualizing” or “objectivizing”.

    Your refusal to seek objective criteria with which to define these characteristics that you claim to measure, are reminiscent of the junk science originating at Harvard University’s Anthropology Department in the 1890’s, that generations of American and European racists used to make false arguments, purporting to show that African people were prone to drug addiction and sex addiction because a bone structure inside their skull impaired them from engaging in self-control.

    The world has a racism problem even today, thanks to the junk science published at Harvard in the 1890’s. That junk science remains a stain upon the University.

    Apparently Fem-Inc and Google learned nothing from history.

    So I’ll educate you.

    Your study is junk science. I had not considered you to be dishonest before today, and once thought your goals were praiseworthy. I no longer believe that.

  2. Hello Bob. Thank you for reading the study and for your perspective on this important topic. In case you missed it in the academic citations, the ASI that we used has been used in hundred’s of studies and was developed by a member of the National Academy of Sciences – all in the references. The fact that imagery chosen based on attire, posture and skin exposure affect that measure is the point. We hope this is just the beginning of a dialogue across the industry. Our study is only the beginning and we welcome further contribution from other researchers to provide even more insights regarding the effects of certain types of imagery used in content and ads.