Reed Smith: how gender stereotyping is changing ad industry

By Nick Breen and Chloe Clift

Gender stereotyping has recently become a topical issue in various industries and British society as a whole. In light of its inherently influential and persuasive nature, the advertising industry has been targeted as being one with a heightened responsibility to challenge conventions, despite historically being an industry which has relied on gender stereotypes to its advantage. All too often we see women advertising cleaning products and men advertising cars and beer.

There is now a new-found focus in the news on the need to address gender stereotyping as part of a movement which seeks to eradicate gender bias in the UK. As a result of this, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) have been under increasing pressure to review the existing rules and consider what action needs to be taken.

After a year-long enquiry, the ASA published its report “Depictions, Perceptions and Harm” on gender stereotyping in advertising in July this year. The report takes into account academic, regulatory and public policy information, as well as the views of industry stakeholders and the general public. It acknowledges the fact that gender stereotyping has the potential to cause harm by inviting assumptions about adults and children that might negatively restrict how they view themselves and others. It also acknowledges that these assumptions can lead to unequal gender outcomes in public and private sectors of people’s lives.

The report highlights the ASA’s positive track record for banning ads that objectify or inappropriately sexualise women and girls or those that suggest it is acceptable for young women to be unhealthily thin. However, it also found that a tougher line needs to be taken as the CAP and BCAP Codes do not currently include specific rules relating to gender stereotyping.

Instead, when considering potential gender stereotype-related complaints, the ASA has historically assessed ads under the broader rules relating to offence and harm. The report suggests that gender stereotyping can range from anything that relates to body image, objectification, sexualisation, gender roles and mocking people for not conforming to a gender stereotype.

In response to the report, CAP is now developing new rules and guidance (which will be published in the coming months) aimed at ads which feature stereotypical gender roles or characteristics. Although it is unrealistic that all ads will be prevented from, for instance, depicting a women cleaning or a man doing DIY, the ASA has hinted that these new rules will target ads that suggest activities are deemed to be gender specific and those which reinforce negative gender perceptions.

Further, the ASA has suggested that these new rules and guidance are only the beginning and that additional rules will be forthcoming.

It is nonetheless encouraging that certain brands are already actively challenging gender stereotypes and promoting the accurate portrayal of diversity in society, a perfect example being the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign (above). It is also clear that discussions around gender stereotyping are beginning to snowball and there is industry appetite for positive change.

Nick Breen is an associate and Chloe Clift a trainee at law firm Reed Smith LLP.

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