British Watchdog Bans ‘Harmful’ Gender Stereotypes in Adverts

December 14, 2018 Updated: December 14, 2018

The UK’s advertising watchdog has said it will ban “gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.”

The Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) said in a Dec. 14 statement that harmful stereotypes in ads “contribute to how people see themselves and their role in society,” and can hold people back.

“Some gender stereotypes in ads can contribute to harm for adults and children by limiting how people see themselves, how others see them, and potentially restricting the life decisions they take,” said Ella Smillie, Project Lead & Regulatory Policy Executive at CAP, adding that the new rule will come into force in June 2019.

The crackdown follows a review of gender stereotyping in advertisements by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the organization that administers the UK Advertising Codes and works to curtail offensive ads.

“Our ambition is to make every UK ad a responsible ad,” said ASA Chief Executive Guy Parker. “As part of that, we’re increasingly taking proactive action so we can have the biggest impact in sectors and on issues where there is consumer detriment, or the potential for real public harm.”

While the authors of the review say they have found evidence suggesting that harmful stereotypes can restrict people’s choices, aspirations, and opportunities, they admit the evidence does not show that the use of gender stereotypes is always problematic.

Not a Total Ban on Gender Stereotypes

The ASA notes that the new rule does not seek to ban gender stereotypes entirely, but seeks to “identify specific harms that should be prevented.”

“There is nothing in our new guidance to suggest that ads can’t feature people carrying out gender-typical roles,” said Smillie.

“The issue would be if in that depiction it suggested that that’s the only option available to that gender and never carried out by someone of another gender.

“So for example if you had a woman doing the cleaning, we wouldn’t anticipate a problem. But if you had an advert with a man creating lots of mess and putting his feet up while a woman cleaned up around him, and it was very clear that she was the only person that did that at home, that’s the kind of thing that could be a problem.”

CAP highlighted other examples that could be “scenarios likely to be problematic,” including:

  • “An ad that depicts a man with his feet up and family members creating mess around a home while a woman is solely responsible for cleaning up the mess.
  • “An ad that depicts a man or a woman failing to achieve a task specifically because of their gender e.g. a man’s inability to change nappies; a woman’s inability to park a car.
  • “An ad that belittles a man for carrying out stereotypically ‘female’ roles or tasks.”

CAP will carry out a 12-month review after the new rule comes into force next year to make sure it is meeting its objective.

‘Vote At the Cash Register’

While the U.S. market has seen its share of debates over gender stereotypes in advertising, R/GA SVP of strategy and partnerships Jessica Greenwood said outright top-down bans are unlikely in the United States.

“This is a form of regulation that the U.K. has implemented from the top down,” Greenwood told Adweek, “But in the U.S., those decisions are made every day by millions of people voting with their voices and their wallets.”

Another factor is that there is no organization in the U.S. similar to the British ASA. Instead, said Gina Grillo, president and CEO of The Advertising Club of New York, “U.S. consumers vote [yay] or nay at the cash register. It’s a new world, and companies that are delivering outdated stereotypes are no longer resonating.”

Samantha Skey, president of the female-focused media company SheKnows, argues for market-driven self-regulation.

“Corporations should be responsible for the values they project through advertising; media companies should be responsible for the messages they accept and propagate through their channels and individuals should be responsible for their ability to accept or reject the messages they consume,” she told Adweek, adding, “advertising creative should not be controlled to this degree by a regulatory body.”

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