Adverts depicting mothers being left to clean up a family mess alone or hapless men failing to perform household tasks are soon to be confined to the past following the publication last week of the Advertising Standard Authority’s (ASA) report on gender stereotyping.

In ‘Depictions, Perceptions and Harm,’ the ASA examines gender stereotyping across several areas, and provides evidence that by reinforcing harmful stereotypes, advertising can negatively affect how people see themselves and others, and affect people’s life choices.

The report recommends that a ‘tougher line’ should be taken on all types of gender stereotyping in ads, and paves the way for new regulations dealing with the issue to come into force by 2018.

Background

The UK Advertising Codes already provide that ads must be prepared with a sense of responsibility and restrict advertising which causes harm and offence. The CAP Code further provides that special care should be made to avoid causing offence on the grounds of gender.

However, while such rules have been invoked by the ASA to ban ads which objectify or inappropriately sexualise women (see, for example, the rulings vs Tembe DIY Products and Etesia UK Ltd) or which feature unhealthily thin models (see, for example, rulings vs Yves Saint Laurent and Gucci), the report suggests that interpretation of the existing regulations has resulted in a more lenient approach to other types of gender stereotyping.

This is notable in the ASA’s approach to depictions of stereotypical gender roles. A Christmas ad for Asda, for example, which features a mother almost single-handedly pulling her family’s Christmas together, garnered 620 complaints on the basis that it reinforced negative stereotypes of women in the home. The ASA disagreed, choosing not to uphold the complaints on the basis that the ad reflected reality for most households and was not itself encouraging discriminatory behaviour.

Similarly, the ASA has typically avoided banning ads which mock people for not conforming to gender stereotypes. For example, a KFC ad which featured one man mocking another for having scented candles which ‘help with [his] anxiety’ did not even make it to formal investigation stage, as the ASA felt that it would be seen as ‘light hearted.’

It has also been suggested (although not by the ASA directly) that the current regulation did not extend to cover the type of alleged ‘body shaming’ in Protein World’s beach body ready campaign in 2015, which elicited nearly four hundred complaints and a huge backlash on social media.

Findings

Ads containing any kind of gender stereotyping, the report finds, can contribute to widespread assumptions about how people should look or behave according to their gender, and these assumptions can be internalised, particularly by children. This can lead to unequal ‘gender outcomes,’ affecting people’s life choices, aspirations and opportunities. A more focussed approach through new regulation specifically targeted at ads which feature potentially harmful gender stereotyping is therefore recommended. These regulations are expected in 2018.

It is not suggested that the specific ads referenced above would necessarily be banned under the new regulations. Equally, one could take the view that a slightly different interpretation of the Code rules on social responsibility and harm and offence could have resulted in some of the complaints being upheld under existing regulation, particularly the Protein World ad. But it will be interesting to see how far the proposed new regulations go.

The ASA has already said that it would be inappropriate to seek to prevent all instances of gender stereotyping, but suggests the new regulations might elaborate on the type of treatments that might be problematic. This might include, for example, an ad which depicts family members creating a mess which a woman has the sole responsibility for cleaning up, an ad which suggests a particular activity is inappropriate for one sex because it is stereotypically associated with the other, or an ad featuring a man trying and failing to undertake a simple household task.

The reality is that since the UK’s self-regulatory system means that ads will only be considered under the new regulations if they are the subject of complaints, advertisers will need to wait and see how the new rules are applied before forming an opinion on what is and is not acceptable.