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How useful are stereotypes?

May 16, 2011

While I was in Australia I read a newspaper article complaining about stereotypes in tourism advertising.

It referenced the use of stereotypical pictures of the outback and kangaroos in their overseas campaigns (the above image was the first Google threw up when I typed in ‘Visit Australia’).  Basically this was seen as old fashioned – not representative of what Australia is now.  And it was perceived to be limiting the type of person who’d be attracted to visit Australia.

This fed into something I’ve been thinking about for a while; how stereotypes are a bit of a double edged sword.

One the one hand they have a kernel of truth at their heart.  They couldn’t exist otherwise.  That’s what makes them a useful shortcut.

Even when the stereotype is subverted (and I always think of the Yorkie ‘Not for Girls’ campaign here) there is still a need for the original to exist.  Otherwise there’d be nothing for the subversion to bounce off.

So when you see a kangaroo in an ad, you probably have a pretty good idea that the ad is about Australia – which stops you trying to work out what it’s about and focus on the real message instead.  They’ve found a shortcut past a huge chunk of explanation.

But stereotypes by their very nature are founded on massive generalisations.  And I think that’s the bit that people don’t like. Especially if the stereotype is an unflattering one.

One of the most complained ads of last year was the Oven Pride one with the pay-off line ‘so easy even a man can do it’ (the cleaning industry’s own shorthand for ‘it must be good’ – even though a survey today reports that actually men are more house-proud than women).

‘Types’ have dominated storytelling forever – from archetypes in fiction through to the typologies that we create for brands today. But where is the line between a type and a cliche?  What tips people from thinking that it is useful and/or funny (The Apple ‘I’m a MAC’ ads) to thinking that it is unflattering and/or offensive (Oven Pride and Australia).

Is it simply down to how cleverly it is used, or is there something else in there?

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 17, 2011 12:32 am

    Interesting post. Clever advertising is always a pleasant surprise and it’s never stereotypical. But I’m thinking that the difference between a “type” and a “cliche” is that the latter is considered “tired” whereas the prior is still an acceptable reality.

    • May 18, 2011 11:09 pm

      Thank you 🙂 I think that tired probably has a lot to do with it – overuse can kill an idea quicker than just about anything else. I wonder as well if there’s something to do with negative associations to the word ‘stereotype’ (tying into the want / need to be an individual). Maybe the difference is one of subtlety? If you don’t notice it, then it can’t offend you, maybe?

      • May 18, 2011 11:34 pm

        You’re right about the negative associations with stereotypes. If someone is in agreement, then there is no offense 😛

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