A lot has been said about the UK GAP ad, and how it not only made a fatal error but also disappointed many when it released its latest ad.
I look at it a bit differently. To me it’s not an “error”. The ad, quite clearly, gives away a mindset – one that cannot be termed as a mistake, an oversight or lack of judgement. These are mere euphemisms that gloss over the real truth, which is that for an ad campaign at a company like GAP (or any other for that matter) must require several layers of approvals, from the bottom to the very top. This revels only one hard truth – that somewhere the ideas of men and women are so firmly entrenched that it did not strike anyone as wrong. And that’s really the unfortunate part – that the ad did not seem jarring to anyone who was involved in its creation and approval. For all the politically correct rhetoric about equality and gender stereotyping, at the end of the day the best of us like to put men and women in boxes – women shop, men do the cerebral stuff. That’s what it boils down to – cutesy girl, little boy – wham you have an ad.
To take this a little further let me add that it’s not about being politically correct either, or how GAP “let it slip”, because being politically correct means that there are compulsory checks and balances that ensure an organization does not make blunders. Call it utopian, but I believe that a company that looks at men and women equally should not, in an ideal world, need such checks.
But it’s not an ideal world, we’ve seen this before, and sadly, we’ll see it again. GAP is not the first company to have revealed its narrow-minded outlook though an ad. Nine West did it two years ago when it released a campaign showing animal print stilettos with captions like – ‘Starter Husband Hunting’ and text that read: “It’s hunting season. Whether you’re looking for Mr. Right or Mr. Right Now, we have a shoe for that” . Again, it was an inadvertent giving away of a mindset, not an example of a “mistake”.
Like in the GAP ad, then too many said that the outcry against the ad was an overreaction. They asked women to “lighten up and take a joke”. Except it’s not a joke – this is about constantly reinforcing deep seated stereotypes that manifest themselves in intangible ways and feed regressive ideas about women and what they should be like. Such parochial ideas percolate deep into our psyches and contribute to creating the barriers women are finding hard to break through today – barriers that are created because of mindsets about women, mindsets that are fueled by ad such as these. So no, it’s not a joke and it cannot be taken lightly. It’s the reason why women are still not accepted into many so-called cerebral roles at work (finance, coding, IT, to name some); it’s why prominent world leaders continue to make derogatory remarks about women and get away with it – ads like these do nothing to help rid society of regressive stereotypes. And they must stop.
In my humble opinion, what GAP did was far worse than many other such ads and thus, unforgivable. By featuring children it’s basically telling every girl who sees the ad that she’s really a social butterfly at best, and must dress to be like one and it’s telling every boy that he is meant for all matters cerebral and must aspire to be like Einstein (which he would probably need to spell first, because GAP sure can’t). Unforgivable and revolting.
I’ve said this before, on too many occasions, that campaigns that feature women in stereotypical roles do irreparable harm and must be checked. Only last month I wrote about something similar I saw at ICICI bank when I saw a poster that showed a father saving money for this daughter’s wedding and son’s graduation – again – women social butterfly who aspires to be married, son – the Einstein who’ll go to a good university. We don’t even realize the flaw in that thought, because we do it repeatedly, and worse, not many even notice it.
Brands have no business telling children what they should play with or wear or think like. Kinder Joy loves to tell boys that blue is their colour and that they must play with boy-toys and that girls must stick to dolls which are found in the pink Kinder eggs. Again, they are impervious to disapproval and continue to be irresponsible in the blind pursuit of sales. Another example of an unforgivable act by a company.
There will be more such ads, which will be termed as “mistakes”. No, a mistake is a spelling error (which GAP also made in the same ad). The ad, in itself, is a reflection of the real problem with our society today in its ideas about gender roles. I am not sure an apology can change that attitude.