Trolling of women’s football won’t end until marketing stops scoring own goals

Ahead of Sunday’s Women’s World Cup final, Head of QA Marty Bakewell tells us why those in the industry should actively promote gender neutrality.

This Sunday marks the conclusion of undoubtedly the most successful FIFA Women’s World Cup in its 24 year history. An expansion of the roster to 24 teams, full BBC coverage for the first time and the unprecedented success of the #Lionesses have helped to put the women’s game firmly on the map.

Recognising the opportunity, EA have announced that the next iteration of their FIFA video games series will include the option to play as one of 12 international female football teams.

While the majority of mainstream media commentary celebrated the decision, there was a surprisingly fierce backlash on social media, most notably in the form of a barrage of sexist tweets.

These ranged from faintly paranoid moaning:

“So now there’s gonna be women’s football on FIFA 16, why do women have to interfere with everything we do?!”

to lame jokes betraying a startling ignorance of basic human biology:

“FIFA 16 career mode — your star striker will be out for 9 months due to pregnancy’”

“Your team must forfeit the cup final due to everyone being on their period”

Ouch, my sides…

Those three tweets alone were favourited and retweeted nearly 10,000 times, and were just the front of a mile-long conga line of stupidity that proceeded to snake its way across Twitter.

That these crass views are still held by many shouldn’t really be news to anyone.

However, those tweets and a significant proportion expressing similar views, were authored by boys as yet untroubled by the need to shave daily. They are highly unlikely to have had their views influenced by exposure to the The Benny Hill Show or Bernard Manning. The world in which they have grown up has been shaped profoundly by the likes of Sheryl Sandberg and Cindy Gallop.

And yet, the fall of the mother-in-law joke and the rise of the female executive have had little effect on the pervasiveness of this kind of sexist world view.

So what is perpetuating it? And what’s it got to do with us in marketing?

Well, first of all, children aren’t born with opinions. They form them based on the messages they receive from the world around them. Admittedly, this happens largely organically through listening to their parents and peers. But a significant chunk of what reaches them during their formative years comes courtesy of the media and marketing industries.

Just by venturing outside a child will end up passively receiving a plethora of messages via billboard and print advertising. And this is not to mention TV and digital campaigns.

Most of us would consider ourselves pretty on message when it comes to what is considered politically correct. And it’s doubtful that there’s an agency left in town who would go to a client with anything that contained even a hint of any of the embarrassing old school -isms.

But dig a little deeper into some of what we do as an industry, and it’s not hard to see how we might be contributing to the issue.

Take, for example, the way toys are sold. Walk into many shops and you’ll see construction sets, footballs and chemistry sets in what is more-or-less explicitly presented as a boys’ section, while girls are offered invites into a world of dolls, toy kitchens and princess outfits.

Let Toys Be Toys, a campaign group set up to encourage retailers to stop this kind of gender segregation, recently tweeted an image taken in a well-known supermarket which showed an astronaut’s outfit on the boys’ side of a shelf divider, with a pink brush and pan set on the other.

The message being sent out was obvious: boys should be out exploring the galaxy while the girls are at home exploring the dishes.

And perhaps we in advertising sometimes inadvertently include subliminal messages that are almost as detrimental when we execute our big ideas.

For example, a TV advert we recently put out contained a short scene at the end showing some young boys playing a game of cricket in a park. The fact that they were all boys was noteworthy because it wasn’t portrayed as an organised match — just a half dozen kids in civvies having a muck about. In fact, excluding girls from the scene was far from a conscious choice on anyone’s part; the brief we shared with the casting agency mentioned only a “children’s game of cricket”, yet the casting reel we received contained only boys.

We didn’t pick up on this at the time, and as it happens it was as much second nature to us as it had been to the agency to shoot it as a boys’ game. In retrospect, we missed what was probably a brilliant opportunity to include a positive message of neutrality.

Most of our work will be consumed by a wide audience, and we recognise that with that sort of reach comes responsibility. It follows that we should make an effort to ensure that maintaining gender neutrality in all our future output comes as naturally as casting only boys in a cricket game did.

An excellent example of where Dare as an agency is making inroads in this regard is a website we run for Sainsburys as part of their Active Kids program. If you haven’t come across it, it’s an initiative which allows schools to exchange vouchers earned in store for sporting equipment. Our work on it includes an online catalogue listing the various pieces of equipment that can be collected. There are many examples of gender neutral imagery in there — footballs are shown being used in a mixed game and there’s a shot of another mixed group using a French skipping rope.

If this kind of approach becomes the norm rather than the exception, it’s hard to imagine that children growing up will reach tweeting age having formed the same views as our friends in the conga line.

And maybe in a world free of that kind of outdated view, my daughter will come to me to say that she’s going to become an astronaut and explore the galaxy.

That said, I doubt I’d be terribly keen on the idea of her hurtling through space at 15 thousand miles per hour — so maybe I’d just tell her that the sky’s the limit, and the glass ceiling starts there.

Dare is a New Digital Agency. Visit our website here.

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