Jamie Williams of isobel: why ending negative stereotypes needs to be everyone’s responsibility

The new ASA gender stereotyping guidelines should be welcomed by brands, agencies and the wider advertising industry, but enforced regulation is not enough.

Formalising regulation is a natural step on from discussions around big issues, such as gender equality in advertising, but we shouldn’t rely on this. Everyone involved in the process of creating ads that consumers are viewing has a responsibility for that content.

Ultimately, whether brand or agency-side, every advertiser and marketer knows the damage that can be caused by consistent negative stereotyping – both the explicit and the more subtle. We can all name and shame ads that have inappropriately sexualised women, depicted women as having sole responsibility for domestic roles, or campaigns that show the ‘useless Dad’ character. Worse still are ads that imply girls and boys are suited to different and specific activities. The long-term harm that these stereotypes cause cannot be understated.

However, these will be the easier stereotypes for the ASA to police. There are more subtle practices that are trickier to spot and perhaps impossible to formally regulate, but over time, also have a significant negative impact.

When writing creative content, for any media channel, it’s easy to slip into perceived norms, especially when the majority of creatives (the people who actually write ads) are still men – only 12 per cent of the UK’s creative directors are female.

The result is that, even when the above-mentioned (now rule-breaking) stereotypes aren’t at play, men and women still often play distinct roles in ads.

When you watch ads on TV, men still have more lead roles, they still have more speaking roles, and roles with more authority. Whilst at first sight women may appear to be on equal footing within a particular campaign, when you look closer, it’s often not the case.

When writing, presenting and reviewing creative and subsequent casting for campaigns it’s important that we all take a step back and ensure we’re reflecting society accurately, and not falling into lazy traps. This requires self-regulation, from agencies and brands, rather than ASA guidelines.

The industry understands the scale of the wider gender equality issue, and recent individual campaigns such as Always ‘Like a Girl’, Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ (below) and The Fawcett Society’s ‘This is what a feminist looks like,’ have specifically targeted negative gender stereotypes, with enormous fame and positive impact across popular culture. So, while I certainly don’t want to give the advertising industry a hard time, as a forward-thinking advertising community, we have to be mindful of the subtle undercurrent that is still at play.

I believe the ASA guidelines will have a positive effect on the industry, be a good thing for creativity, and a good thing for brands. The enemy of all great and memorable advertising campaigns is the status quo and seen-before, overly used, category norms (and this includes stereotypes). Having a solid foot outside your category can be a great thing for a brand.

Just like with ASA gambling or alcohol regulations, I’m sure that within a few years we’ll look back and wonder why it took so long for regulations to exist around gender stereotypes. The impact will surely be wholly positive for our industry and for the content we produce.

However, this isn’t an issue that the advertising agency faces alone. We are very much part of a wider popular culture, which is in flux. When discussing the choice of Jodie Whittaker (below) as the first female Dr Who with a young female colleague (who is a huge Dr Who fan) she said something that made me realise how important a single casting choice can be – “When I was younger all I wanted to be was Dr Who’s assistant. That was my dream. But now young girls will want to be the lead character.”

This perfectly illustrates the impact of negative gender stereotyping, and shows why it’s up to us as an industry to be responsible. As welcome as they are, we shouldn’t need to rely on ASA regulations to do this.

Jamie Williams is a partner at independent London creative agency isobel.

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