Gender and Race Representation in Brand Mascots Exacerbate Stereotypes and Biases, Says Geena Davis Institute on Media Study

The debate on positive gender and race representation in the media has been raging  for decades, but there’s one area that’s gotten very little attention: brand mascots. This week, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media released the findings of a study that looked at how brands depict gender and race through their mascots, and let’s just say their findings weren’t all that surprising.

What Do We Mean by Brand Mascots?

If you’re thinking Tony the Tiger or the Geico gekko, that’s one version of a brand mascot. But brand mascots can also be spokespeople, like the Old Spice “Man Your Man Could Smell Like” or the Pine Sol lady. According to the study, brand mascots take the form of “spokespeople or spokescreatures,” and these mascots “are vital to effective branding because they are the image that succinctly conveys the spirit of the brand.” Whether they are a person or a cartoon, they are essentially a visual representation of the brand.

Here are some brand mascots you might recognize:

 Spokesperson Spokescreature
Captain Morgan’s Captain Morgan Charmin’s Bear Family
KFC’s Colonel Sanders Cheetoh’s Chester Cheetoh
Fanta’s Fantanas Toys “R” Us’ Geoffrey the Giraffe
Allstate Insurance’s Mayhem Man Camel’s Joe Camel
Chiquita’s Miss Chiquita Green Giant’s Jolly Green Giant
Progressive’s Flo Pringles’ Julius Pringles
Aunt Jemima Michelin’s Michelin Man

How are Top Brands Representing Gender and Race?

Just like gender and race representation in movies, TV, ads and other forms of media, the way brands represent gender and race in their mascots can shape cultural beliefs, spread negative stereotypes and strengthen implicit biases. To determine exactly how brand mascots represent gender and race, the study researchers analyzed the brand mascot content of the 500 top-selling products in the U.S.

Gender Representation in Brand Mascots

The study found that male brand mascots outnumber female brand mascots 2 to 1 or 67 percent compared to 31 percent. The researchers identified only a very small sliver (1.5 percent) of mascots with androgynous features, but the study doesn’t touch on whether this is to represent a genderqueer audience. In fact, the study itself draws a hard line between genders, failing to address the gender spectrum entirely. This is a major failing on the part of the researchers, so the results presented here only reflect data from the standpoint of a gender binary, so these results must be taken with a major grain of salt.

Having said that, there wasn’t much difference in the settings in which the mascots were placed, but the study did find that gender stereotypes are alive and well for both male and female brand mascots.

  • 22.9 percent of female mascots are significantly less likely to possess authority or be commanding as male mascots (14.5 percent)
  • 4.1 percent of male mascots are likely to be depicted as threatening compared to only 1.5 percent of female mascots
  • 19.4 percent of female mascots are depicted as skinny or very skinny, while 11 percent of male mascots are depicted with unusually large muscles
  • Nearly one in 10 (8 percent) of female mascots are shown wearing sexually revealing clothing, while less than 1 percent of male mascots wear revealing clothing
  • 7.5 percent of female mascots are depicted as partially nude compared to only 0.3 percent of male mascots
  • 18.4 percent of male mascots are depicted as funny compared to only 2.6 percent of female mascots

What these stats show is that even with brand mascots, women are hyper-sexualized and valued for their bodies, while men are beefed up and valued for their aggressiveness. Gender roles are continually being emphasized at the grocery store, in TV commercials, in social media ads — anywhere these brands can spread their messages.

Race Representation in Brand Mascots

It doesn’t get much better when it comes to race representation. The implicit biases against people of color are really undeniable when you start to dive into the numbers. The study doesn’t give us a figure comparing white mascots to people of color as mascots, but it does give us other figures that are pretty compelling.

  • 28.1 percent of mascots of color are depicted cooking or preparing food compared to white mascots at only 10.6 percent
  • 8.4 percent of white mascots are depicted eating or drinking compared to 0 percent of mascots of color. That’s right. 0 percent.
  • A whopping 65.6 percent of mascots of color are represented as racial or ethnic stereotypes compared to only 2.8 percent of white mascots. Yikes.
  • 4.7 percent of mascots of color are portrayed as threatening compared to only 1.7 percent of white mascots
  • 27 percent of white mascots are depicted as commanding or as having authority compared to only 14.1 percent of mascots of color

You see what picture these stats paint, right? It’s not good. Mascots depicting people of color typically rely on racist stereotypes to market a product. It’s usually a person of color cooking, serving, working. And these depictions are everywhere, making the general public think it’s OK to portray people of color this way. But it’s not. It’s far from OK.

It’s time we do better.

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Author: Mika Doyle

Mika Doyle is a creative writer and communications professional based in Rockford, Ill. She has a bachelor’s degree in English/Literature and a master's degree in communications. She isn't shy about labeling herself a feminist and is a vocal advocate for gender equality. When she's not at work or studying, she enjoy playing with her 100-pound American bulldog, hiking, watching way too much Netflix and reading a good book. Follow her on twitter at @mikadoyle.

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