Bad Ads And Stereotypes

Written by Rebecca Brown

In June this year, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) brought into effect a ban on harmful gender stereotypes in advertising. In response to public outcry about adverts such as the 2015 ‘Are you beach body ready?’ campaign by Protein World, and growing discomfort with outdated depictions of gender roles in the media, the ASA undertook a project to consider whether existing regulation is fit for purpose. They concluded that “evidence suggests that a tougher line needs to be taken on ads that feature stereotypical gender roles and characteristics, which through their content and context may be potentially harmful to people.” (ASA, 2017: 3)

The ASA and its sister organisation, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), are responsible for ensuring adequate self-regulation of the advertising industry in the UK. They have the power to determine the content and enforcement of the Code of practice for advertising. Whilst some rules contained within the Code are legally enforceable, many are enforced via sanctions such as having an advert withdrawn from broadcast, referral to bodies for further action (such as Trading Standards or Ofcom), or receiving bad publicity by being ‘outed’ as a non-compliant advertiser. This can have an impact on a company’s reputation and capacity to operate within the industry. The aim of such regulation and collective enforcement of the Code is to ensure that “marketing communications are legal, decent, honest and truthful, and consumer confidence is maintained.” (ASA, 2017: 5)

The new regulation acknowledges that it wouldn’t be realistic to seek to excise all instances of, for instance, women cleaning or men fixing cars. However, they draw the line at ‘problematic’ portrayals of gender such as:

An ad which depicts family members creating 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 Code already has provisions to block ads that are considered offensive or which fail a requirement to be socially responsible, with have led to rulings against ads that objectify or inappropriately sexualise women and girls, or which suggest that it is acceptable for young women to be unhealthily thin. But these are considered to not go far enough when it comes to gender stereotypes, hence the new standards. 

The new regulation raises interesting questions about the role of the ASA (and other industry regulators) when it comes to social norms and morality in commercial activity. Should the standards set for advertisers be ‘leading the way’ in terms of how gender is portrayed – aspiring to show a world where gender is not perceived as limiting one’s options? Or is it acceptable for advertisers to simply reflect the real world – given that gender stereotypes are pervasive and have been around for a long time, can they not be used to sell products?

There is also plenty of debate to be had about gender stereotypes, with some arguing that they are significantly damaging to both women and men, girls and boys, and others suggesting this is overblown. The problem is with obtaining clear causal evidence regarding the extent to which gender stereotypes are harmful. For current purposes, perhaps the more important question is whether reducing the number of instances of visible gender stereotyping will reduce the kinds of harms to which gender stereotypes are thought to contribute. The harms here are potentially very broad – anything from a particular individual feeling offended from the depiction of a woman/man/girl/boy in a certain advert, to the gender pay gap, underrepresentation of women is certain professions, or suicide rates in young men.

The main drawbacks of restricting the freedom of advertisers to create the adverts they want seem to be the cost to creativity (assuming the default should be to permit as much freedom as possible) and the additional work this creates for the ASA in seeking to establish gender stereotype-related harms and enforce the new code appropriately. I wonder, however, if there is an additional cost to losing some of the opportunities bad ads provide to communicate social unacceptability. For instance, the ‘Are you beach body ready?’ campaign kicked up a huge fuss with numerous people contacting the ASA (who received more than 380 complaints), criticising Protein World on twitter and through other social media, and comment pieces written in national newspapers. Despite their insistence to the contrary, one has to think this campaign was an embarrassing misstep for Protein World. The very loud, very united public condemnation of the ad may well have better served the end of seeking to challenge gender stereotypes than a quiet decision by the ASA to prevent the ad from running.

A second concern about the benefits of this regulation is whether it will actually reduce harm. As mentioned, it is difficult to get good evidence here, and easy to make plausible sounding assumptions that turn out not to be true. Gender inequality and the harms that result from it are a big deal and deserve careful consideration and empirically supported responses. It might be that the things that could actually help tackle gender inequality – such as better provision of maternity pay, access to cheaper childcare, decent mental health services, etc. – are neglected when we comfort ourselves with the thought that we have done something about the problem.

Perhaps we should just applaud the ASA for taking a stand against harmful gender stereotypes and seeking to make the world better – and more fair – in some way. But it is also important to acknowledge when the solutions are likely to be hard to find and expensive to execute, and to demand evidence that what is being done really is making a difference for the better.

References

Advertising Standards Authority. (2017). Depictions, Perceptions and Harm. ASA Available at: https://www.asa.org.uk/resource/depictions-perceptions-and-harm.html 

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