What 2.7M YouTube ads reveal about gender bias in marketing
Fifteen years ago, I sat down to watch preschool programming with my toddler and was stunned by the lack of female characters in what was being made for the youngest of children. Not only were female characters missing in kids’ TV and family films, but when they did appear, they were often one-dimensional, narrowly stereotyped, and/or valued for their appearance. The thing is, I couldn’t find one person among the many in the entertainment industry I approached who saw what I saw. In fact, I was surprised to find that all were quite sure that gender inequality in kids’ fare was a thing of the past, including the creators of this media. So I set out to change it.
When I realized there was no research available on gender representations in children’s media, I launched the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, with the goal of advocating directly with creators to improve on-screen gender representation, using data, presented in a private, collaborative way. That was back in 2004. Since then, my institute has conducted global research on intersectional gender representation in advertising, film, and television.
I’m excited to share our latest report, which uses Google technology to measure representation in multimedia content. The result is the largest global study of advertising content to date, which I hope will push forward our goal of helping marketers use data and tools to become more inclusive.
Women in media: missing in action
For context, gender biases persist in all major forms of media. In our latest See Jane 2019 Report, we found that male leads still outnumber female leads 2 to 1 in the top 100 family films in the U.S. Similarly, male characters speak and appear on screen twice as often as female characters. And, unfortunately, this hasn’t improved in the past decade.
However, when it comes to children’s television (ages two to 13), after more than a decade of advocacy work from my institute, we have finally achieved gender parity on screen. This is historic. In the major children’s TV shows we analyzed, female characters now appear as leads or co-leads 52% of the time, and female characters account for 55% of screen time and 50% of speaking time.
But gender parity remains elusive in every other form of media, including film, TV news, gaming, music, publishing, film criticism, consumer goods mascots, and advertising. Representation in advertising is especially influential in shaping societal values given the sheer volume of ads we are exposed to each day, numbering between 4,000 and 10,000. Each ad offers a distinct hypothetical world where a different value is placed on different groups of people, so these images have a profound effect on experiences in the real world.
How industries measure up
Our latest study aimed to uncover how gender representation affects what people watch. First, to understand what was created, we analyzed over 2.7 million YouTube videos uploaded by advertisers between January 1, 2015, and March 31, 2019. Then we accounted for over 550 billion views through May 31, 2019, to understand what was watched in 51 markets. We wanted to know who was featured most often in the most-watched videos. I should also note that we recognize gender is not solely limited to binary definitions; this report only reflects binary gender expression based on a machine learning model that uses a data set of individuals who consented to self-identify their genders.