The Great British Ban on “Gender Stereotypes” in Adverts. Censorship? Or a Step in the Right Direction?

29 August 2019

Country: UK

by: Mikhail Yakovlev

Screen_Shot_2019-08-29_at_4.36.06_PMEarlier this summer, new Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) rules banning “harmful gender stereotypes” went into effect in advertisements across the United Kingdom.

Already, the ASA has taken up complaints about two advertisements, one for Philadelphia cream cheese and another for Volkswagon. Now, industry leaders are accusing the advertising authority of censorship, claiming that it interferes with their business.

Are these accusations justified?

ASA argues that the new rules—which forbid any advertisement that advances problematic gender portrayals—are important to counteract the power of advertisements to feed stereotypes and produce “real-world harms.”“The review found evidence suggesting that harmful stereotypes can restrict the choices, aspirations and opportunities of children, young people and adults and these stereotypes can be reinforced by some advertising, which plays a part in unequal gender outcomes,” the agency stated, in response to the 2017 review which prompted this policy change.

Media experts say that the advertising agency made the right call—particularly if their end goal is to curb stereotypes.

“Gender stereotypes can be harmful if they reflect negative concepts such as: it is a woman’s job to be a housewife and be at home; or, men cannot look after children because they are not biologically designed for that job. Women are bad drivers, etc,” University of Westminster Senior Lecturer in Advertising & PR Carl Jones told Media Diversity Institute.

“When the public sees these types of messages, the ad ends up reinforcing these negative opinions.”

However, advertising decisions are not made at the whim of the company—they are a byproduct of careful market research into what target customers respond to the most. One could argue that sexist, or otherwise stereotypical advertisements are equal parts the fault of the company and its clientele. What came first, the stereotype or the media message creating and reinforcing it?

Let’s have a look at the two most recent rulings.

The Volkswagen advertisement was the first to be banned under the new regulations—largely for showing men as adventurous, and women as passive. It opens with a shot of a woman asleep in a tent, while a man switches off the light and zips it up. The following scene depicted two men astronauts floating in a space ship, quickly cutting to a man para-athlete with a prosthetic leg doing the long jump. In contrast, the final scene shows a woman sitting on a bench next to a pram.

The second complaint the ASA upheld was in response to an advertisement for Phildelphia cream cheese that shows two men carrying their babies in a car seat while waiting at a buffet, served on a conveyor belt. Distracted by selecting and eating their lunch, the two men place their babies on the moving conveyor belt without noticing

Again, the ASA agreed that “the advertisement perpetuated a harmful stereotype by suggesting that men were incapable of caring for children and would place them at risk as a result of their incompetence.”

However, critics say that these rules are draconian, and that the watchdog has gone too far. Others defend the stereotypes; BBC Radio 4 Today presenter John Humphrys went as far as to suggest that it is “common sense” that women “do a better job” of caring after children than men. Mondelez UK, who owns Philadelphia cream cheese claimed that their ad was meant to be tongue in cheek. Their representatives argued that banning such humorous ads amounts to censorship, and leaves little space for creativity.

But the Advertising Standards Authority has the data, and their research shows that the effect of these advertisements is often negative—particularly when it comes to their power to subconsciously show children that this is the “natural” way for them to behave.

“Ads that specifically contrast male and female stereotypes need to be handled with care,” said ASA investigations manager Jess Tyre. “It’s about thinking about what the cumulative effect of those gender stereotypes might be.”

According to Carl Jones, regulations don’t always kill creativity—sometimes they can even inspire it.

“Advertisers and brands have always had to face rules, such as in the alcohol or medicine categories. So, we, as advertisers, are used to creating messages that respect the regulations. I personally think that this inspires creativity,” he says, responding to the criticism that regulations lead to censorship.

“For example, in Canada medical advertising cannot specifically refer to the benefits of products like VIAGRA offer. So, this specific regulation forced ad agencies to search for creative solutions. In the end, an agency called TAXI solved the brand messaging with an innovative campaign that won awards globally.”

Inevitably, some firms are going to leap down the ASA’s throat, and claim that their desire to curb the harmful impact of tired stereotypes is a new form of censorship. However, this is what separates good advertisers from the bad.