Debra Mallowah talks gender stereotypes in advertising at PromaxBDA Africa

Debra Mallowah (Photo credit: FCB Global)

In an effort to elevate the current conversation around gender stereotypes in advertising, a session titled Unstereotype, helmed by Debra Mallowah, kick-started the 2017 PromaxBDA conference, held at The Maslow Hotel in Sandton, Johannesburg.

Mallowah, general manager of Consumer Healthcare at GSK and a member of the Women’s World Banking Africa Advisory Council, stressed that the narrow and often negative historical stereotypes of women presented in domestic scenes, need to change. She also challenged media influencers in the audience to reinforce change in their next projects.

Mallowah said: “The issue of stereotyping and the negative perception that it can create is actually real – it does happen. So as we’re gathered here, sitting in this room, we have a powerful influence in shaping perceptions.”

In the 1-hour session, Mallowah presented amended advertising guidelines, trends, success stories as well as tips to advertisers on how to combat gender stereotypes, more especially in projecting women in a more positive light.

“We rarely see female heroes coming through and they do exist,” asserted Mallowah.

The #FeesMustFall campaign, spearheaded by a female student was noted, as well as how several Hollywood blockbusters, such as Wonder Woman, have seen great success with women in lead roles.

Mallowah also referenced various TV shows and films that have diminished traditional stereotypes while tackling modern day gender roles in a provocative and intriguing manner. “Orange is the New Black shattered gender stereotypes. The show consists of an all-female cast, and represents a wide spectrum of gender and race. It really tackles gender issues front on and in a confrontational way,” she said.

Mallowah also referenced  the series How to Get Away with Murder: “In this series the idea that men are supposed to be aggressive and violent and women are the ones who are nurturing and caring; these roles are completely reversed with a female lead character that is confident, strong and intelligent,” she shared.

She then brought it closer to home and highlighted films from the African continent that celebrate women in their unique strength and diversity. The 93 Days documentary-drama from Nollywood, shares the true story of the Ebola outbreak in Africa and how one female doctor was on the forefront of fighting the disease and saving Nigeria from a deadly fate. Another film, Ayanda, is a coming-of-age fictional tale from South Africa which opposes the traditional racial and gender roles as a young, Afro-hippie, female, black lead fights to preserve her father’s automobile repair business.

In July 2017, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) announced that it is to adopt stricter standards on gender portrayal and stereotypes as well as implement tougher sentences and banning to advertisers that do not adhere to these guidelines. These laws will take effect later in 2018 and will include the banning of ads that:

  • Depict family members creating a mess while a woman has the sole responsibility of cleaning it up;
  • Suggest a specific activity is inappropriate for boys because it is stereotypically associated with girls, or vice-versa;
  • Feature a man trying and failing to undertake simple parental and/or household tasks.


Mallowah expressed her support of these guidelines while presenting some ‘good versus bad’ ad examples to the audience. She also shared tips on how more advertisers can adhere to these new standards.

The story and lesson behind the 2016 Nike ad, which pays tribute to tennis champion Serena Williams and undertook the issue of gender stereotypes, was used as a case study by Mallowah. When an interview celebrating Williams’ reign in tennis became a talking point because a reporter referred to her as “one of the greatest female athletes of all time,” to which Williams blatantly remarked “I prefer the words ‘one of the greatest athletes of all time’”, Nike saw this as an opportunity to defy gender politics in sport by featuring Williams and her profound response  in one of the most successful Nike commercials of all time.

Mallowah expands: “A change is required and we need to set an ambition for our brands and the industry at large to advance from this stereotypical portrayal to a more progressive approach. Progressive advertising leads to much stronger engagement, stronger talk-ability and delivers fantastic brand impact.”

In conclusion Mallowah said that the progressive portrayal of women starts with a better approach and reflection to the roles, personalities and appearances of all women in modern society.

“Challenge yourself in terms of the roles that women are featured in. Beauty should not conform to a male perception of attractiveness and alluring,” she advised the audience.

Mallowah also added that the roles in which women are being presented in the future of advertising, should represent the aspirations of women and their wider achievements.



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