Joanna Williams Joanna Williams

Meghan, Harry and the truth about sexist adverts

Meghan Markle and Prince Harry (Credit: Getty images)

Do Harry and Meghan need rescuing from their Montecito mansion? Being part of the royal family and living among California’s elite makes for a rarefied existence. But it appears that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex lack all access to the newspapers, films, television shows or websites that could provide clues about life beyond the perimeter fence. For surely only social isolation can explain their latest focus on pushing advertisers to ‘break the gender binary’.

Harry and Meghan have thrown their support behind Equimundo, a charity that ‘works to promote gender equality’. Its newly-released ‘State of the World’s Fathers’ report calls on the media to ‘portray men and boys as caring and competent’ and, more specifically, to show ‘men doing cooking and cleaning and women doing tasks like mowing the lawn or fixing the sink’. Equimundo also wants better representation of ‘diverse family formations, including LGBTQIA+ parents and non-nuclear families’.

Perhaps Harry and Meghan really do live in a Montecito bubble of old school sexism

Equimundo might have a slick website but those in charge are clearly stuck in the 1950s. They appear to imagine a world where the only contribution fathers make to housework is occasionally washing the car while mums, on the other hand, rarely leave the kitchen. What’s more, the charity’s researchers assume we live like this because it’s what we see on screen. In this ‘monkey see, monkey do’ world, us ignoramuses task women with household chores because that’s what adverts tell us to do.

The Equimundo researchers clearly missed the recent adverts from cosmetics company Maybelline featuring bearded men experimenting with lipstick. They didn’t see the #MeToo-inspired Gillette campaign which aimed to sell razors by urging men to behave better. Or Nike’s sports bra advertisements featuring transgender Dylan Mulvaney.

They also evidently didn’t see the RAF recruitment adverts that show women ready for combat. Or the Dove deodorant campaigns promoting female body positivity. Or the Twix advert featuring a boy in a dress. In fact, they seem to have slept through pretty much every single advert produced in the past decade which focuses on challenging sexism and promoting diversity as much as selling a product.

Indeed, the UK’s Advertising Standards Agency outright banned adverts with stereotypes ‘that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence’ in 2019, effectively ruling out any commercials that might show men and women engaged in gender-stereotypical activities. This heavy-handed interference was unnecessary. Advertising agencies were already tripping over themselves to prove their woke credentials.

The emphasis on diversity means we are far more likely to see multiracial or same sex couples on screen than in real life. It can seem as if the only role for straight white men in today’s adverts is to have their toxic masculinity corrected through the purchase of the right brand of razor or deodorant.

Just this week we learnt that five of Britain’s biggest advertising companies are members of a network set up by activists from Stop Funding Hate, a campaign group that orchestrates boycotts of media outlets including the Sun, the Express, the Mail and GB News. Its newly-launched ‘Conscious Advertising Network’ aims to break the ‘economic link’ between advertising and ‘harmful content’. This means that adverts will preach gender equality but only on approved sites, in order to defund – and ultimately censor – outlets deemed politically unacceptable. 

Tell copywriters that ‘you have to see it to be it’ and you get mini-despots who think it falls to them to override democracy and re-programme society. The upshot is that at least one creative consultancy has warned that advertisers risk losing touch with consumers and being perceived as telling audiences ‘how to think’. Research for the Pull Agency, conducted in 2022, found that 60 per cent of those asked did not feel ‘well represented’ in adverts. 

Yet the researchers at Equimundo – and, it seems, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – seem utterly oblivious to all of this. In a statement released on their Archewell website, Harry and Meghan say they are ‘proud to have supported this report, as well as Equimundo’s continued work to promote gender equality around the globe’. They go on to express concern about the ‘deeply ingrained social norms’ that discourage men from becoming more involved in caregiving.

Why argue for gender stereotype-subverting adverts when they are already so deeply entrenched within our media landscape that there is a growing consumer backlash? Perhaps Meghan is seeking a return to her glory days. When she was 11-years old, the precocious future Duchess wrote a letter to Proctor and Gamble to complain about a sexist washing-up liquid advert. She has dined out on the anecdote ever since.

Or perhaps Harry and Meghan really do live in a Montecito bubble of old school sexism. After all, Meghan’s current status comes primarily through marriage and motherhood. If she wasn’t Harry’s wife, few would care what she thinks about gender equality or any other issue. If the Duke and Duchess of Sussex want to tackle sexism, they should stop focusing on adverts and look closer to home.

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