Gender stereotypes could finally be cause for complaint to the ASA


The Advertising Standards Authority can’t be accused of a knee-jerk response to the problem of gender stereotypes in ads.

Last July it highlighted the issue in the “Depictions, Perceptions and Harm” report, and now, ten months later, it is launching a consultation on a single proposed new rule for the ASA codes of practice.

It seems pretty obvious that “Advertisements must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence” should be added into the codes.

The ASA consultation on this line ends in July, and the new rule will presumably be added some time after that.

Perhaps the reticence is due to the complexity of the issue. The ASA is likely to be swamped by complaints from people of all genders who have time on their hands and no sense of humour: you would never have to look very far to find something to offend you.

Let’s hope the professional moaners don’t drown out the serious issues around gender and society. Remember Protein World’s sexist “Beach Body Ready” poster? It was the fifth most complained about ad of 2015 and was banned by Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, but under its old rules, the ASA concluded that it was “unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence.”

The world has moved on since then, and it’s hard to imagine the Protein World ad being made now, but that does not mean the battle is won. Let us not forget that, less than two years ago, Unilever’s research found that a pitiful three per cent of ads feature women in professional roles, and only one per cent show women as funny.

The ASA lays out some problematic scenarios that could finally be legitimate grounds for complaint later this year: no more shots of a man putting his feet up while a woman cleans up the mess; someone failing at a task because of their gender, a non-ideal body as a reason for romantic or social failure; showing boys as daring and girls as caring; new mums thinking more about their looks than their wellbeing; or ads that belittle a man for taking on stereotypically female duties.

Ella Smillie, gender stereotyping project lead at the Committees of Advertising Practice, says: “Our review of the evidence strongly indicates that particular forms of gender stereotypes in ads can contribute to harm for adults and children by limiting how people see themselves and how others see them and the life decisions they take.”

There are some notable examples of groundbreaking ads that actively smash stereotypes, but they are still rare. Most recently we had AMV BBDO’s “Blood Normal” for Libresse, but other campaigns like Sport England’s “This Girl Can,” Ariel’s “Sharing the Load,” and Procter and Gamble’s “Like a Girl” are getting pretty old.

The World Federation of Advertisers is also weighing in on the issue with a new “Guide to Progressive Gender Portrayals in Advertising,” as part of the global #Unstereotype Alliance with brands including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Mars and Diageo.

As well as putting together the business case for change, it offers five rules for marketers: encourage diversity in your teams; track performance in your gender approach; find what your brand stands for that benefits both men and women; think long-term; go beyond marketing to internal culture and suppliers.

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About Emma Hall

Emma Hall
Emma Hall is the former London Editor of Ad Age, where she covered European marketing advertising, digital and media stories. She has written for newspapers including the Financial Times, The Guardian, The Times and the Telegraph, and was previously a section editor at Campaign. Emma started her career in New York as a researcher for a biography of Keith Richards.
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