UK Ban on Gender Stereotypes in Advertising:

A landmark decision or an arbitrary clampdown?

On 14th December 2018, The Committee of Advertising Practice Ltd (CAP) published a Regulatory Statement introducing a new rule and guidance to prevent advertising from including gender stereotypes that are ‘likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence.’ This rule and guidance came into effect on the 14thJune 2019 after an implementation period of six months.

In August 2019 two ads became the first to be banned under this new ruling, as the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) found both to be sexist. Volkswagen and Mondelez UK (which makes Philadelphia) were the first companies to fall foul of the ruling with their TV adverts.

The Volkswagen advert showed men and women taking part in challenging situations with the by-line ‘When we learn to adapt, we can achieve anything’. It depicted a man closing a tent fixed on a cliff face (while a woman slept inside), two male astronauts in space, a male para-athlete doing a long-jump and a woman with a book sitting on a bench next to a pram.

And they

 considered that the ad directly contrasted stereotypical male and female roles and characteristics in a manner that gave the impression that they were exclusively associated with one gender.”

The Philadelphia advert depicted two dads who are so distracted by choosing what to eat in a restaurant that they don’t notice their babies being carried away on a food conveyer belt. One of them says “Let’s not tell mum!”

The ASA stated:

“We acknowledged the action was intended to be light-hearted and comical and there was no sense that the children were in danger. We considered, however, that the men were portrayed as somewhat hapless and inattentive, which resulted in them being unable to care for the children effectively.”

And

“…we considered the ad relied on the stereotype that men were unable to care for children as well as women and implied that the fathers had failed to look after the children properly because of their gender.”

Geraint Lloyd-Taylor, a partner at the legal firm of Lewis Silkin, reviewed these decisions in AdLaw Insights stating:

What was meant to be a liberal and progressive change in approach to offensive and socially irresponsible gender stereotyping has become something that looks very loose, inconsistent and unpredictable, and actually quite illiberal.

The challenge is that the ASA is now actively looking for a perceived harm in the broadest sense, rather than applying an objective, predictable standard, and this is causing real challenges for those in the industry, who are now having to second guess themselves.” 

An interesting study by Kantar recently discovered that gender portrayals in advertising remain stereotyped, with 68% of all ads in the UK and Europe showing women as ‘likeable’ and/or ‘caring’, with only 4% including an ‘authoritative’ female character. Only 7% depict an authoritative man, indicating that ads aren’t presenting positive role models for either gender!

So, have the ASA become the morality police, over riding common sense and going too far to ban the innocuous use of gender stereotypes? Or are they enforcing some long overdue standards? Are these ads so harmful that they should never be shown again in the UK? Or are they harmless and inoffensive?

What do you think?

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