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Industry welcomes ASA's 'tougher' stance on gender stereotyping in ads but warns brands against recoiling to 'safe options'


By Rebecca Stewart | Trends Editor

July 17, 2017 | 7 min read

More than one year since it opened a consultation on the matter, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) has unveiled plans to formalise the way it regulates ads that feature gender stereotypes.


Unilever's 'Find Your Magic' Lynx campaign seeks to challenge gender stereotypes

It comes after the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) published a report – titled Depictions, Perceptions and Harm – which found that “a tougher line is needed on ads that feature stereotypical gender roles or characteristics which can potentially cause harm, including ads which mock people for not conforming to gender stereotypes.”

While the ASA and CAP stressed that any new standards are “not intended to ban all forms of gender stereotypes”, such as a woman cleaning or a man doing DIY, it did suggest some “depictions” that are likely to be “problematic”:

  • An ad which depicts family members creating a mess while a woman has sole responsibility for cleaning it up
  • An ad that suggests a specific activity is inappropriate for boys because it is stereotypically associated with girls, or vice-versa
  • An ad that features a man trying and failing to undertake simple parental or household tasks

CAP – the authors of the UK Advertising Codes - will develop new standards on ads over the coming six months, which the ASA will then administer and enforce in 2018.

Commenting on the move, ASA chief executive Guy Parker said tougher guidelines can play an important role in tackling inequalities and improving outcomes for individuals, the economy and society as a whole. “Portrayals which reinforce outdated and stereotypical views on gender roles in society can play their part in driving unfair outcomes for people,” he added.


The shift to alleviate stereotypes from ads follows on from several brand led initiatives from the likes of Unilever and the UN, which recently teamed up with the likes of Mars, Facebook, and WPP to form the Unstereotype Alliance – a group dedicated to purging gender bias from ads.

Unilever itself kickstarted an 'Unstereotype' pledge last year in which it promised to erase stereotypes from its campaigns. So far it has unveiled work from Dove and Lynx which aims to smash traditional gender roles, noting a 24% increase in consumers rating its ads as progressive as a result.

Nadya Powell, co-founder of consultancy Utopia and co-founder of the Great British Diversity Experiment, said that the ASA announcement as a "glass half full" moment for British advertising despite the “sadness” that it’s necessary in 2017.

"In 1975 both I, and the Sex Discrimination Act were born. In our 42nd year, so little has been done by the advertising industry to conform to the tenets of the Act that the ASA has introduced standards to enforce it. My immediate reaction is one of deep sadness that after 42 years of repeated gender discrimination the ASA has decided only new standards will drive change," she mused.

On the flip side, she pointed to "positive glimmers" of change already happening within the industry, including Lynx's ongoing 'Find Your Magic' campaign and Maltesers' recent Channel 4 ad.

Powell said she believes the forthcoming standards will undoubtedly work so the industry will see change faster, but said she hoped the move would not cause marketers to "recoil to the safe option."

Tim Doust, founding partner, at FCB Inferno - the agency behind Sport England's widely lauded 'This Girl Can' campaign – suggested the changes are “fairly rudimentary” as it is already incumbent on the industry to do the right thing to ensure the audiences feel celebrated, not belittled by ads.

“On a personal level I worry that any hard and fast rules can limit creativity. I feel that the ads most likely to be affected by this code are either suffering from a serious lack of creativity in the first place or keen to get the headlines stemming from any controversy - I’m looking at you, Paddy Power,” he said.

“Humour – which is of course so hugely important in the UK - is particularly likely to polarise opinions, but humour where the scapegoat is a stereotype seems now to be very old-fashioned and I’d be more than happy to see the back of them - in which case, long live the ASA!

"That said, we as agencies have been entrusted as the brand guardians and should be confident in leading the client down a creative path that we have checked against the brand and audience values and insights, not a list of rules pinned to the wall. I think we are all aware of how fast society is moving, and as such we are led by real-time strategy and insight rather than a Christmas cracker joke from last December.”

New ways of thinking

Despite Doust’s assertions, a swathe of the population continues to feel alienated by advertising. J. Walter Thompson's recent Women's Index surveyed 9,000 women and found that 85% of them felt advertising and film needed to "catch up with the real world."

The agency's global planning head Rachel Pashley, who oversees the firm's global Female Tribes initiative (focused towards changing the conversation brands have with women), welcomed the plan from the ASA.

"Part of the work we do with clients is to advise and consult on understanding what we call 'Female Capital', so embracing all the values that women bring to the world and looking at a diverse representation of women beyond parental responsibilities,” she said.

“We see from our Women’s Index study just how diverse women’s lives are, and so we base our thinking on facts and insight, and not stereotypes.”

She believes agencies need to look inward if they want to project diverse ideals too. JWT recently created a 'Female Filter' in conjunction with Creative Equals, analysing this year's Cannes Lions winners to see how many had senior female creatives on their teams, and Pashley said the results were "appalling." In this year’s film category, for example, only 9% of Gold winning campaigns had at least one senior female creative.

"Again, proof that one of the biggest priorities we face is getting more women making the ads. If there are no women making the ads, then gender stereotypes are bound to keep slipping through," she continued.

Powell shared the same sentiment, she hopes this shift will encourage agencies to include more diverse people in the creation of ideas. "Hopefully they will look deeper for the rich insights available in this pluralistic and brilliant world. It will undoubtedly also add further fuel to the quest for more women in creative departments and on boards," she added.

CAP will report publicly on its progress before the end of 2017, so marketers will have to wait until then find out exactly what the fresh standards around stereotypes will mean in reality, but the body has promised to deliver training and advice on the new guidelines "in good time" before they come into force.

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