The deluge of pink advertising in the lead-up to Mother’s Day is not only infuriating; it has an important message for those seeking to tackle gender-related health issues.

So says Margo Saunders, a public health policy consultant in Canberra, who also wonders: do women really want a pink computer?

She writes:

“I have been thinking a lot about sex lately. No, not like that – more like ‘sex’ as in ‘gender’.  This is due in no small part to the fact that this year will see Australia’s first National Men’s Health Policy and an updated National Women’s Health Policy.  Both of these are likely to contain strong statements about the need to address ‘gender stereotyping’ and reflect expectations based on flexible and evolving notions of gender.

Two recent and very different advertisements – for a pink computer and for cream cheese  – have prompted two questions. Are the health sector’s visions about gender realistic, given mainstream norms around gender identity? And are we happy that the sexual emancipation of women now apparently gives women the right to treat men as sex objects on prime-time television advertisements?

The first of these questions is considered below; the second will be the focus of a subsequent contribution. The intention is not to provide a sophisticated analysis, but to just raise the issues.

Why the concern about advertising?  I could not help but be struck by the contrast between the visionary concepts contained in recent discussions about health and gender (for example, statements suggesting that the health sector needs to help bring about shifts in ‘what it means to be a man’ so that ‘masculinity’ embraces more health-promoting attitudes and behaviours), and the rampantly traditional gender stereotypes emanating from current advertisements for everything from computers to toys to food products.

Advertisements can be viewed as a sort of societal ‘button-pusher’, as their purpose is to initiate a behavioural response, such as getting us to buy something.  Their success is relatively easy to measure and is based on outcomes: if an ad is credited for increasing sales, it continues, and ads that employ approaches that do not translate into increased sales are scrapped.

The constant barrage of advertisements depicting traditional gender stereotypes to persuade us to buy clothes, toys, housewares and office equipment suggest only one thing: to quote home loan guru John Symonds: ‘It works’.  Through their constant reinforcement of traditional gender stereotypes, these ads also serve as a warning to idealistic public health types who have delusions about their ability to alter concepts of traditional masculinity and femininity: you will have you work cut out for you and are up against the power of commercial advertising.

Yes, some things have changed.  In particular, there are understandable concerns about the effects of raunch culture and porn identities on both boys and girls.  These influences, combined with the fact that girls and boys are under unprecedented pressure to conform to gender stereotypes from a younger and younger age, have led to findings (by author Maggie Hamilton and by researcher Anastasia Powell at LaTrobe University) that girls feel pressured to appear sexually available – to be ”hot” – and that boys have become de-sensitised to sex and violence and are influenced by expectations to appear macho and to treat women as sex objects.

In the midst of these influences, traditional gender identities have held on with a vengeance. John Redenbach, spokesman for the Australian Toy Association, noted last year that, ”Kids today are not really any different to the kids of 20 years ago, with one exception … they are growing up faster, earlier.”  He expected the bestselling toys last Christmas to be the traditional ones: Lego for boys and Barbie dolls for girls.

The accuracy of these ‘traditional’ gender stereotypes is another matter.  Half a century ago, my three sisters and I — in the absence of any brothers and therefore perhaps without the need to stake out any gendered turf — had more interest in board games and bicycles than in dolls (boring).  We played ‘cowboys and Indians’ instead of playing ‘house’.  My mother was a professional speech pathologist who had better things to do than cooking and housework.  And none of us ever had the slightest preference for pink.

But the point, I suppose, is that we believe and accept that the traditional stereotypes are true. And that brings me to the advertisement that caused me to spit the proverbial dummy.

Having recently watched, with jaw-dropping incredulity, the barrage of stereotypically gendered ads on Saturday morning television – tools and action toys for boys, dolls for girls  –  I found a letterbox full of advertising material from various retailers offering me pink sneakers, pink blenders, pink irons, pink vacuum cleaners and pink neck massagers.

But what really convinced me that we have a serious problem was the OfficeWorks’ print advertisement for the Dell Inspiron Mini 10.1 Netbook with the prominent and cheery notation: ‘Available in pink for Mum’.

It’s not the fact that they make it in pink – it’s the underlying assumption.  Would a Mum who wants and uses a netbook – say, a multi-tasking senior public servant or small business owner — really want one in pink?  (Mine’s shiny black – very classy.)

Am I the only one who feels insulted that advertisers are treating me as if I am a little girl hankering after a spangled pink tutu?  Or do I just need to watch more Saturday morning tv ads?”