A review by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the Committees of Advertising Practice’s (CAP) – the body responsible for writing and maintaining UK advertising codes – has introduced a new rule on banning harmful gender stereotyping which came into force on 14 June 2019.
The new rule followed increased political and public debate on equality issues and came into force following ASA’s findings that harmful stereotypes, sometimes portrayed in advertising, can contribute to how people see themselves and their role in society, therefore restricting their choices and aspirations.
The new rule applies to broadcast and non-broadcast media advertisements (including online and social media ads) and states that adverts or marketing communications “must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious widespread offence”.
The ASA has clamped down on its first two ads following the introduction of the new rules.
What does the new rule mean for advertisers
The ASA has confirmed that there is a 6 month grace period (effective from 14 June 2019) for advertising industries (which covers the global industry of public relation and marketing companies, media services and advertising agencies) to get ready for the new rule. In the meantime the ASA will deal with complaints on a case-case basis and assess each advertisement by looking at the content and context to determine if the new rule has been breached.
The ASA has included examples of advertisements that are likely to be problematic under the new rule, these include:
- An ad that depicts a man with his feet up and family members creating mess around a home while a woman is solely responsible for cleaning up the mess.
- Where an ad features a person with a physique that does not match an ideal stereotypically associated with their gender, the ad should not imply that their physique is a significant reason for them not being successful, for example in their romantic or social lives.
- An ad that belittles a man for carrying out stereotypically ‘female’ roles or tasks.
The rule and its supporting guidance doesn’t stop advertisements from featuring:
- A woman doing the shopping or a man doing DIY.
- Glamorous, attractive, successful, aspirational or healthy people or lifestyles.
- One gender only, including in ads for products developed for and aimed at one gender.
- Gender stereotypes as a means to challenge their negative effects.
It is worth noting that the ASA has acknowledged that that their findings did not show that the use of gender stereotypes is always problematic and the rule does not seek to ban gender stereotypes outright, but identified specific harms that should be prevented.
Guy Parker, Chief Executive of the ASA, is quoted as saying “Our evidence shows how harmful gender stereotypes in ads can contribute to inequality in society, with costs for all of us. Put simply, we found that some portrayals in ads can, over time, play a part in limiting people’s potential. It’s in the interests of women and men, our economy and society that advertisers steer clear of these outdated portrayals, and we’re pleased with how the industry has already begun to respond”.
Whilst the CAP will carry out a review of the new rule in 12 months’ time to make sure it’s meeting its objective to prevent harmful gender stereotypes, the ASA has already reported on 14 August 2019 that it has banned two television ads made by food company Modelez and car manufacturer Volkswagen, following complaints from the public that they perpetuated harmful stereotypes.
The first banned ad, for Philadelphia cheese, showed two fathers leaving a baby on a restaurant conveyor belt. Complainants said the advertisement perpetuated a harmful stereotype by suggesting that men were incapable of caring for children and were so incompetent they would place youngsters at risk.
The other ad for Volkswagen, showed men being adventurous as a woman sat by a pram. Several hundred complainants said that the ad perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes by showing men engaged in adventurous activities in contrast to a woman in a care-giving role.
Both Mondelez and Volkswagen put forward arguments in respect of their respective ads with Mondelez arguing that the ad showed a positive image of men with a responsible and active role in childcare in modern society and Volkswagen arguing that its ad made no suggestion that childcare was solely associated with women, and the fact that the woman in its advertisement was calm and reading could be seen as going against the stereotypical depiction of harassed or anxious parents in advertising. The ASA disagreed with both arguments and found both ads relied on gender stereotypes thus breaching the code.
The investigation manager at the ASA, Jess Tye, told the BBC that gender stereotypes in advertising could cause “real-world harms” and “Ads that specifically contrast male and female stereotypes need to be handled with care. It’s about thinking about what the cumulative effect of those gender stereotypes might be.”
These cases show that the interpretation of the new rules is far-reaching and advertisers should be wary until the rules are clarified or the ASA’s review complete.