A Review of Advertising in the Caribbean and Its Links to Gender Equality, Gender Norms, and Violence against Women and Girls

Advertising has a pervasive influence on societies. Children and adolescents are exposed to a barrage of advertisements through television and other digital platforms. This exposure has surged in recent years, as digital technologies have become increasingly integrated into the daily lives of children, adolescents, and their caregivers. Advertisements promote certain messages, which may shape viewers’ perceptions of what society is or could be — including what behaviors and roles are considered appropriate for women, girls, men, and boys.

Indeed, evidence suggests that advertisements and marketing materials may significantly influence gender socialization processes. As outlined in a recent UNICEF- and U.N. Women–commissioned evidence review concerning the media’s influence on gender norms and violence against girls, gender socialization refers to the processes by which individuals learn and internalize gender norms: “informal rules and shared social expectations that distinguish expected behaviour on the basis of gender.”1 This process is especially influential during adolescence — an important transitional phase between childhood and adulthood, when gender norms are either solidified, rejected, or transformed. Gender norms are closely related to gender stereotypes: “generalizations about groups of people as gendered subjects.”2 For example, many societies believe that a woman’s “appropriate” role is to be primarily responsible for her household’s domestic duties, such as cooking, cleaning, and caring for the family. This norm consequently informs stereotypes that “all women” enjoy performing these tasks.

Programmatic and scholarly research show that discriminatory norms are a key driver of violence against women and girls (VAWG). The goal of upholding local norms may be used to justify acts of violence. For example, evidence from India shows that when women’s greater access to employment and financial resources challenges household power dynamics and expectations of men and women’s “appropriate” roles, women may experience greater risks of GBV.3 Discriminatory gender norms also normalize acts of VAWG: Research from diverse global contexts suggests that media reporting of VAWG that reflects discriminatory gender norms contributes to victim blaming and the cultural normalization of violence, which consequently justifies inadequate state responses.4,5

To promote gender norms more aligned with human rights, evidence suggests that interventions targeting multiple agents and institutional sites of gender socialization are needed.6 Yet policymakers and practitioners often overlook advertising as a key site of gender socialization and an entry point for changing harmful gender norms. Greater knowledge around advertising and its influence on stereotypes, norms, and gender socialization — particularly among children and adolescent viewers — can help inform future interventions to dismantle these critical barriers to gender equality.

This research from UNICEF and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, with the support of the Spotlight Initiative Caribbean Regional Programme, attempts to address some of these data gaps by investigating the forms and prevalence of gendered messaging in advertising content across the Caribbean. More specifically, this report presents the findings of a systematic content analysis of gender representation in 600 advertisements from television and digital media in four countries (Barbados, Jamaica, Saint Lucia, and Trinidad and Tobago) that aired between 2019 and 2021.

This analysis identifies how women, girls, men, boys, and gender-diverse individuals are portrayed in this sampling of advertisements, and it explores how these depictions might reinforce or challenge harmful gender norms. In doing so, the results also surface a number of potential drivers and risk factors associated with VAWG. In addition to providing valuable baseline data for monitoring progress and accountability toward gender representation in advertising, the evidence generated from this study also informs a series of concrete recommendations for how advertising agencies, policymakers, and other international bodies can better promote positive messages that advance the rights of all children.

Key Findings

The study’s findings indicate that harmful gendered norms and stereotypes are present in advertising in the Caribbean. However, inequities were often subtle. Women and men appeared in advertisements at similar rates overall — but the ways in which they were portrayed were often distinct and illustrative of discriminatory gender norms and a patriarchal system that privileges masculinity over femininity.

Therefore, although there were very few instances of outright violence or harm from individual characters in the reviewed advertisements, the subtle ways in which they depicted and therefore reinforced traditional gender roles may also suggest that it is “appropriate” and “normal” to punish those who violate these norms — including through acts of VAWG.

This report also identified a few promising trends and practices. There was no statistically significant difference between the percentage of men and women portrayed in parenting contexts. There were also no statistically significant differences for behaviors related to decision making, leadership, or socializing. Furthermore, several reviewed advertisements illustrated positive norms, including men engaged in domestic tasks, couples treating one another as equals, and characters with greater diversity in terms of age, race/ethnicity, and body size.

1. Marcus, Rachel and Harper, Caroline. (2015). Social norms, gender norms and adolescent girls: a brief guide. Overseas Development Institute. Page 4.

2. Fuentes, Lorena; Saxena, Abha; and Bitterly, Jennifer (2022). Evidence Review: Mapping the Nexus Between Media Reporting of Violence Against Girls. U.N. Women and UNICEF. Page 11.

3. Amaral, S., Bandyopadhyay, S., & Sensarma, R. (2015). Employment Programmes for the Poor and Female Empowerment: The Effect of NREGS on Gender-based Violence in India. Journal of Interdisciplinary Economics, 27(2), 199–218. https://doi.org/10.1177/0260107915582295

4. Ladysmith. (2021). Policy Brief No. 1: Femicide and the Media: Do reporting practices normalize gender-based violence? https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Ox6TzMAMgUEdm5C2pNr3_kQUbSCu345r/view

5. Fuentes, Lorena. (2020). “The Garbage of Society”: Disposable Women and the Socio-Spatial Scripts of Femicide in Guatemala. Antipode.

6. Cookson, Tara Patricia; Fuentes, Lorena; Saxena, Abha Shri; Jha, Shreyasi. (2020). Programmatic norms change to eliminate violence against children: Insights for practitioners and researchers from a UNICEF global mapping study. Global Public Health.

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