Saturday, August 25, 2012

Gender in Advertising Images: The Devil is in the Detail

My Saturday was unbalanced already at breakfast, while reading the Economist and drinking my orange juice. On page 67 of the August 25-31, 2012 issue, I discovered that TU Delft is recruiting a Professor of Safety Science (good news!). Unfortunately, whoever designed this ad has made some unconventional decisions (not such good news).

The most obvious "bug" is the choice to include in the advertisement an image of a person. Since this misstep is a useful illustration of the limitations of visual depictions in multimedia, I decided to dedicate a blogpost to discussing it.

At first consideration, it seems obvious that our university should advertise using image of people. One of the reasons that I love working at TU Delft is the emphasis on solving societal problems. Using pictures containing people and not just technology wherever possible seems to be a good strategy for getting the importance of our work to address human and social challenges across.

However, a major limitation for visual depictions such as images and videos is "the curse of instance  depiction". Basically, it is impossible to create such visual imagery without committing yourself to depicting a full range of details. You can't get across and abstract concept, for example, "car" without actually committing yourself to an instance of a single car existing in the real world, which you take to stand for all cars. Instead, you are going to need to show in your image a specific type, make and model.

Here, the concept that the ad is trying to convey is "professor". The "type, make and model" chosen to convey this concept are an adult of a certain gender and a certain age group, wearing glasses. It seems plausible that the person designing the ad was aware of the problem of instance depiction. The decision to use a model with a shaved head makes it possible to avoid depicting the hair color, which could serve to further specify the ethnic background or the age.

However, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to "hedge" on the gender question in images of the real world. A person depicted in a daytime work setting will generally be identifiable as a male person or a female person.

If we assume that the process by which we choose and interpret images that are being used to represent categories follows prototype theory, then the choice of a male to represent a TU Delft professor is no just unbalancing for the reader of the advertisement, but is very serious indeed. Prototype theory tells us that in our cognitive representations, some members of conceptual categories are more salient than others. We think of them first when we think of a category and we react to them more quickly when confirming category membership.

The use of a male person in this advertisement sends the message that males are the canonical professors at the TU Delft. Although men are clearly in the majority in the faculty, there is not any sort of a conscious intention at the university to keep the situation that way. In fact, I have the impression that everyone is working to shift their idea of how can be a professor to encompass a diverse demographic more directly representative of the general population.

Visual depictions in multimedia, i.e., images depicting the real world, are limited in what they can express because they deprive us of the possibilities of leaving certain details unpecified. What we have is a reversal of the saying "A picture is worth a thousand words." Instead, the spoken or the written word is able to express more in this case because human language can directly convey concepts without having to make use of specific instances to do so. In effect, the possibility for ambiguity or underspecification is makes human language more expressive that multimedia.

And so, the saying "The devil is in the detail" takes on a new shade of meaning.

What to do about the advertisement? I advise having a closer look at some advertising guidelines. Advertising Standards Canada, a non-profit self-regulation body for advertising, has a helpful list of guidelines for balancing gender representations in advertising online and surely Europe has a similar set of guidelines.

An "quick and dirty" solution is to look to see how other universities advertise. In the Economist, a general tendency to avoid imagery is readily apparent. For example, next to the TU Delft advertisement is a classical advertisement for Harvard faculty positions, whose only graphic content in the Harvard Business School logo.

I was cheered up again when my Google Googles app confirmed for me that the logo used was from the business school (i.e., distinct from the main Harvard Logo). It is my first use of Google Goggles for something other than just playing around with while hanging out with my multimedia information retrieval colleagues.

For completeness, I note a less obvious bug. The advertisement contains the text "Maximum employment: 38 hours per week (1 FTE)" In order to interpret this text, you need to know that "FTE" stands for "full time equivalent". 1 FTE means this position is a full time job. Contrary to what the text implies, no one the Safety Science processor to working 38 hours a week.