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Gender stereotypes present in sperm donor recruitment marketing, research concludes

9 September 2019


An expert in gender stereotypes and consumer culture predicts new advertising rules in the UK may result in sperm banks overhauling their marketing strategies.

Cardiff University academic Dr Francesca Sobande was lead author on a research paper which concluded sperm banks in the UK and Australia are using gender archetypes to attract donors because laws prohibit them from paying for sperm.

Globally, the sperm donation industry is valued at more than 3.5 billion US Dollars. Greater acceptance of same-sex relationships and increased demand for fertility treatments are expected to drive further industry growth in coming years. But regulatory constraints have contributed to sperm shortages in the UK and Australia, where it is illegal for sperm banks to financially reward donors. These challenges were heightened in the UK after it ended donor anonymity in 2005, resulting in the end of the national sperm bank.

In response, the research concludes sperm banks are relying on masculine archetypes (the ‘superhero’, ‘soldier’ and ‘everyday hero’) in their marketing recruitment strategies.

Dr Sobande, based in the School of Journalism, Media and Culture, said: “Our research found sperm banks are using stereotypical depictions of masculinity to recruit new donors. The ideal donor is often represented as embodying the template for a traditional superhero character. At times, they are specifically framed as coming to the rescue of women. This type of marketing reinforces stereotypical ideas concerning masculinity, as well as associated gender relations. There is scarce recognition of different gender identities and dynamics beyond heteronormative relations and a cisgender binary of men and women.

“As the changed gender stereotyping rules in the UK have only recently started to be enforced, it is difficult to predict how this might affect sperm donor marketing. However, it could be telling that one of the first adverts to be banned was criticised for its stereotypical depiction of fatherhood. These new rules may result in greater criticism of all media representations of parenthood. Sperm banks will need to rethink how they market themselves if they are to ensure they don’t fall foul of these changes.”

Dr Sobande was one of three academics who wrote, ‘Soldiers and Superheroes Needed! Masculine Archetypes and Constrained Bodily Commodification in the Sperm Donation Market’, which was published in the journal Marketing Theory. Cass Business School academic Dr Laetitia Mimoun, and ESSEC Business School academic Dr Lez Trujillo Torres also carried out the research.

The researchers found sperm bank marketing strategies depended on masculine archetypes that involve humour and the use of hypersexualised and romanticised images. In some cases, donors are represented as being dutiful saviours. In others, they were shown working in life-saving roles, such as firefighters and lifeguards.

Examples of the soldier archetype are found in a recreation of the famous Lord Kitchener propaganda poster used to recruit soldiers to the British Expeditionary Force in 1914 and in a campaign that described sperm shortages as ‘the real banking crisis’.

The ASA recently banned two adverts – one for a car and one for cream cheese - following complaints they depicted gender stereotypes. Dr Sobande welcomed these changes but said that they may need to be refined and that more work is needed.

She said: “The new gender stereotyping rules related to advertising are necessary as it is known that stereotypical depictions in media and marketing can negatively impact people's self-perceptions and how others treat them in society.

“The pervasiveness of gender stereotypes undoubtedly cannot be solved by these changes alone. Nevertheless, they are a move towards more effectively holding marketers to account regarding the potentially negative and damaging impact of the content that they generate.”

The full paper can be viewed here.

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