On 18 July 2017, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) published a report concluding that further amendments to the Committee of Advertising Practice Code (CAP Code) may be required to address the issue of harmful gender stereotyping in advertising.

Gender equality issues have long been the focus of political, legal and social debate so it is unsurprising that the report has attracted a high level of public interest. Here we drill down into what the report will mean for advertisers, and what they should be doing to prepare for the new rules when they take effect. In particular, we consider the practical implications for targeted advertising and gender profiling.

What are the existing rules on gender stereotyping?

There are currently no direct rules preventing gender stereotyping in advertising. However, certain ads featuring gender stereotyping may be caught by the CAP Code if the ASA takes the view that it is likely to cause "serious or widespread offence".

The existing rules have led the ASA to ban ads that objectify or inappropriately sexualise women and girls. It has also ruled against ads that suggest it is acceptable for young women to be unhealthily thin.

Until now, the ASA has typically taken the view that depictions of stereotypical gender roles or ads that mock people for not conforming to a gender stereotype do not breach the CAP Code. Previously, this was decided on the basis that they are unlikely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence.

How will the rules change?

It is important to note that the report contains only recommendations. Despite this, it is a clear indication that the ASA considers it necessary to introduce tougher standards to restrict ads that depict stereotypical gender roles and characteristics, or that mock people for not conforming to gender stereotypes.

No changes to the CAP Code have been made as yet. However, the findings of the ASA's report may prove persuasive in relation to the interpretation of the existing rules.

What does this mean for targeted advertising?

The main challenge for advertisers will be to ensure that any targeted advertising does not breach any new implemented gender stereotype rules.

Advertisers use a variety of sophisticated tools to profile target audiences. Finely tuned behavioural and socio-psychographic targeting is regularly utilised when advertising through social media. Marketing content can easily be tailored to appeal to target demographics, which often involves targeting a specific gender.

For example, an advertiser may target stay at home mums as the core demographic for a particular campaign. This may lead advertising copywriters to design an ad that features a woman in stereotypical roles. The challenge now will be working out what kind of depictions will be acceptable under the CAP Code.

Where is the ASA likely to draw the line?

It will be reassuring for advertisers to learn that the ASA does not expect targeted ads to eliminate any kind of depiction of men and women in traditional gender roles. One of the ASA's findings was that it would be inappropriate and unrealistic to prevent ads from depicting a woman cleaning, for example.

The ASA gave the following examples of the kind of depictions that may be banned under new standards:

  • an ad that depicts family members creating a mess while a woman has sole responsibility for cleaning it up;
  • an ad that suggests an activity is inappropriate for a girl because it is stereotypically associated with boys or vice versa;
  • an ad that features a man trying and failing to undertake simple parental or household tasks.

The report also specifically raises the kind of gender depictions that may be harmful to men and boys. For example, it mentions that stereotypes that imply all men should be physically strong, unemotional and the family breadwinner are often linked to increased rates of depression and suicide in men.

The ASA has promised that changes to the CAP Code will be delivered through standards that are easy to understand and easy to implement. As such, we would expect further guidance to be provided before the changes come into effect. It will be important for the ASA to be clear on where the line is drawn between acceptable and unacceptable depictions of gendered roles.

Even with clear guidance, we would expect the new rules to lead to some difficult judgment calls needing to be made during the creative stage of advertising campaigns.

What are the risks?

The ASA can order advertisers to stop running a particular campaign and prevent them from running the ads again in future. This can lead to considerable wasted expenditure, particularly if the campaign is intended to run for a long period of time.

Needless to say, the negative publicity attracted by public ASA rulings, particularly in relation to sensitive subjects such as gender stereotypes, can cause real damage to an advertiser's reputation.

It is important to note that the ASA receives a large volume of complaints in relation to gender stereotyping in advertisements. The ASA said that in 2015 and 2016, it considered a total of 1,378 cases that broadly related to the depiction of women, men or both.

We recommend advertisers guard against these risk by reviewing ads featuring prominent gender depictions at an early stage in the creative process. If ads are only reviewed from a legal perspective at the final sign-off stage, it can be expensive to go back to the drawing board and reshoot or redesign the advert.

The person who reviews the advertising material should be someone who fully understands the CAP Code so as to ensure the right balance is found. The right balance means avoiding an excessively risk averse approach while ensuring the advert is compliant with the new CAP Code provisions.

What next?

Following the report, the Committee of Advertising Practice is in the process of developing new standards for gender stereotyping. The ASA says that the committee will report publicly on its progress before the end of 2017.