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Gender stereotyping: stamping it out

Gender stereotyping and equality has become a prevalent and often debated subject in recent times. It therefore comes as no surprise that this hot topic has caught the attention of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the body that administers UK advertising codes and regulates the industry.

In 2017 the ASA and Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) undertook a review into the practice of portraying gender stereotyping within advertising. It was found that gender stereotypes “can negatively reinforce how people think they should look and behave based purely on their gender… This can lower their self-esteem and limit their aspirations and ability to progress in key aspects of their personal and professional lives…”

Following a later consultation and as a result of its findings, on 14 June 2019 the ASA has announced CAP’s long awaited ban on harmful gender stereotypes had come into force. This new rule which will apply across the board to broadcast and non-broadcast media alike states:

“[Advertisements] must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.”

The aim is not to provide a blanket ban on portraying gender stereotypes and characteristics, but instead eradicate harmful stereotypes being depicted. Guidance has been provided which states that care should be taken to avoid showing stereotypical roles or characteristics which are:

  • always uniquely associated with one gender;
  • the only options available to one gender; or
  • never carried out or displayed by another gender.

Compliance with a subjective rule…how do we do it?

In addition to the above guidance the ASA also provides some top tips for advertisers including:

  • advertisements targeted at children should not explicitly convey that a particular children’s product, pursuit, activity is inappropriate for one or another gender;
  • advertisements should be sensitive to the emotional and physical wellbeing of vulnerable groups under pressure to conform to particular gender stereotypes;
  • mocking someone who doesn’t conform to gender-stereotypical appearances or activities is never acceptable; and
  • gender stereotyping doesn’t just apply to women. Depictions of men that are likely to be problematic are also addressed in the guidance.

So what does this really mean for advertisers?

Deciding whether advertisements have breached the new rule will clearly be a question of subjective interpretation. Last year we saw some online backlash surrounding an Amazon Echo Dot advertisement which was perceived to show a father struggling to cope with the pressure of being left alone with a baby. Some commented that the advert was sexist and even patronising to dads. Under the new rules, it would be interesting to see which side of the fence the ASA would sit and if advertisements like this will be permitted in the future.

It is worth noting that whilst this is a bold move, in what appears to be the right direction, the UK is not the first country to impose a ban of this nature. Since 2017, there have been bans on the use of digitally altered and enhanced images, without a warning label in France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

In a world where advertising not only shapes our culture but reflects it, advertisers are likely to face difficulties in advertising the traditional norms of our society, even with light-hearted humour and best intentions.

What’s next…?

The advertising industry has had forewarning of the rule coming into force for around six months, so the updated codes and guidance should come as no surprise. Moving forward, the ASA will review advertising complaints on a case-by-case basis considering if they fall foul of this new rule.

The ASA has confirmed that in its assessment it will look at the impact of the advertisement as a whole including the form of advertising used, context, the target audience and the likely response of that audience. It has also issued a warning to advertisers that “use of humour or banter is unlikely to mitigate against the types of harm or serious or widespread offence identified in this guidance.”So tongue in cheek humour is not to be a get out of jail free card that can be relied on.

Advertisers should therefore watch this space as some within the industry are likely to test the boundaries of the new rule. It certainly appears to be a topic very much on the radar of the ASA, and CAP are due to carry out a review in 12 months’ time.

Whilst this is clearly a step in the right direction and the advertising codes need to continue to develop with our society’s changing views, we hope that this will not kill advertisers’ creative licence at the expense of political correctness gone too far.

If you would like any further information on advertising or financial promotions, please contact Daniel Bennett.

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