Background

As reported in our earlier article (ASA announces that from June harmful gender stereotyping in adverts will be banned), new rules introduced by the CAP now prohibit the depiction of gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm. The new rules came into effect on 14 June 2019 after a 6 month lead-in period. This came after a review by the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA), which suggested that harmful stereotypes could affect the choices of children, young people and adults, and play a part in reinforcing unequal gender outcomes.

The new rule, which applies to broadcast and non-broadcast media (including online and social media), states that:

[Advertisements] must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.

The rule does not seek to ban gender stereotypes completely, only ones that are considered harmful or offensive. Guidance issued by the CAP sets out examples of scenarios that are unlikely to be acceptable. In particular, these could include adverts which depict one gender’s inability to perform a task because of their gender (e.g. a man struggling with childcare; a woman’s inability to park a car), or which reinforce the contrast between a boy’s stereotypical personality (e.g. adventurous) and a girl’s stereotypical personality (e.g. caring).

The rulings

Mondelez UK Ltd

The TV and video on demand (VOD) ad for Philadelphia soft cheese features two dads with babies at a restaurant with a conveyer belt serving food. The ad opens with one of the babies being handed over by the mother to the father. The men are chatting and distracted by the food, saying “Wow, look at this lunch”, “Yeah, hard to choose” and “This looks good”, whilst a sitting baby in a car seat is seen on the moving conveyor belt. One of them then notices his baby has gone around on the conveyor belt, saying “argh!” and goes around to pick the baby up. The other man picks up his baby in the car seat off the conveyer belt, saying “Let’s not tell mum.”

The ASA received 128 complaints that the ad perpetuated a harmful stereotype by suggesting that men were incapable of caring for children and would place them at risk. In response, Mondelez claimed that the ad showed a positive image of men with a responsible and active role in childcare. There was no intent to make the dads look incompetent – they were simply momentarily distracted by the food and the babies were shown not to come to any harm.

The ASA concluded that the advert was in breach of the CAP Code. The opening scene where the baby is handed over by the mother to the father, combined with the final remark “Let’s not tell mum”, implies that the dads had failed to look after their children properly because of their gender. Whilst the ASA acknowledged that the ad was intended to be humorous, the humour did not mitigate the effect of the harmful stereotype. On the contrary, the humorous narrative was central to it, and relied on the audiences’ familiarity with the gender stereotype being portrayed.

To view the Mondelez ruling in full, click here.

Volkswagen Group UK Ltd

The TV ad for the Volkswagen eGolf opens with a man and women in a tent affixed to the side of a cliff. The following scene shows two male astronauts floating in a spaceship and text appears saying “When we learn to adapt”. The next scene shows a male athlete with a prosthetic leg doing long jump and text appears saying “we can achieve anything”. The final scene shows a woman sitting on a bench next to a pram whilst the eGolf passes by. The women looks up, and the text says “The Golf is electric, The 100% electric eGolf.”

The ASA received three complaints that the ad perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes by showing men engaged in adventurous activities in contrast to a women in a passive care-giving role. In response, Volkswagen claimed that the central message of the ad was on the ability of the human spirit to adapt to challenges and change. The scene with the woman and pram in the park was considered a relatable example of adapting to a life changing experience, and also served a secondary purpose to illustrate the reduction of engine noise in the eGolf.

The ASA found that the overall impression of the ad would focus the viewers’ attention on the occupations of the characters, and the direct contrast between how the male and female characters were depicted. Juxtaposing images of men carrying out adventurous activities with women in a passive, stereotypical care-giving role gave the impression that they were exclusively associated with one gender. The ASA concluded that the ad therefore breached the CAP Code.

To view the Volkswagen ruling in full, click here.

How can ads avoid falling foul of the harmful gender stereotyping rules?

The ASA appear to have taken a strict and consistent approach to interpreting the Mondelez and Volkswagen ads against the new rules and accompanying CAP guidance. Both ads fall within the examples given by the CAP of scenarios which are likely to be unacceptable (men struggling with childcare because of their gender and juxtaposing stereotypical gender roles e.g. adventurous man with a passive woman).

This can be contrasted with the ASA’s recent ruling on Nestlé’s TV ad for Buxton bottled water, which was not found to have breached the new rules. The ad features a female ballet dancer, a male drummer and a male rower. Each character is shown practising their different skills and drinking Buxton water. A voice-over states "…There will be obstacles but it's all about finding a way through, pushing upwards until finally reaching the top. Buxton. Here's to the up and coming". The ASA received five complaints that the ad perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes by contrasting the men and woman doing activities that are stereotypically associated with each gender. The ASA considered that the ad was less focused on the specific occupations of each character, and more focused on their drive and talent, which had allowed them to reach the top. Whilst the ASA acknowledged that ballet was stereotypically seen as a girl’s activity, each skill depicted – ballet, drumming and rowing – was shown to be equally difficult and demanding. Therefore, the ad did not breach the CAP Code - click here to see the full ruling.

These first round of rulings demonstrate that there is a fine line when it comes to depicting gender stereotypes in such a way that is not likely to cause harm. Indeed, the banning of the Mondelez and Volkswagen ads has been met with some criticism from the industry that the ASA have taken an over-zealous approach. Nevertheless, the rulings serve as an important reminder to advertisers to treat the use of gender stereotypes seriously. The CAP are due to carry out a review of the new rules in 12 months’ time (June 2020) - advertisers should watch this space as the ASA continue to test the boundaries of the new rules.