Ad watchdog cements rules against ‘harmful' gender stereotypes ahead of 2019 launch

Ads that show a man with his feet up while a woman is solely responsible for cleaning up mess around him will be banned

Ads that portray men as being hapless dads, imply women are unable to park a car or belittle men for carrying out typically ‘female’ tasks will be banned by the UK ad watchdog from next year under a new rule designed to clamp down on gender stereotypes.

Following an extensive public consultation, which kicked off last July, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has confirmed that, from June, ads must not include gender tropes that are likely to cause harm, or serious widespread offence.

The regulator’s own research found that the way some brands portrayed men and women’s gender roles and characteristics in their messaging caused real world harm.

It has been firm that the fresh set of standards aren’t intended to “ban all forms of gender stereotypes” (so women can still be shown cleaning or men doing DIY) – but contentious depictions (like creative that shows a man with his feet up while a woman is solely responsible for cleaning up mess around him) will be spiked.

Ads that emphasise contrast between a boy’s stereotypical personality and a girl’s (such as a recent campaign from Gap which styled boys as ‘geniuses’ and girls as ‘social butterflies’) will also be deemed inappropriate.

Here are some other scenarios the ASA deems “problematic”:

  • Ads that show a man or a woman failing to achieve a task specifically because of their gender
  • Ads that feature a person with a physique not typically associated with their gender, which imply that their physique is a ‘significant reason’ for them not being successful, for example in their romantic or social lives
  • Ads aimed at new mums which suggest looking attractive or keeping a home pristine is a priority over other factors like their emotional wellbeing
  • Ads that belittle a man for carrying out stereotypically ‘female’ roles or tasks

The guidance isn’t intended to prevent ads from featuring glamorous, attractive, successful, aspirational or healthy people or lifestyles or products marketed towards a specific gender. This means that although Protein World’s infamous ‘Beach Body Ready?’ poster was heavily criticised and derided as ‘sexist’ there would be no case for the ASA to ban it. Products like Bic ‘pens for her’ will also be excluded.

The ASA’s existing rules on harm/offence and social responsibility will still be used when considering complaints about objectification, sexualisation and body image; a different matter from gender tropes.

When advertisers use gender stereotypes to challenge their negative impact, like Always’ ‘Like a Girl’ series does, the brand won’t be penalised.

“Harmful gender stereotypes have no place in UK advertisements. Nearly all advertisers know this, but for those that don’t, our new rule calls time on stereotypes that hold back people and society,” explained Shahriar Coupal, director of the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) which sets the rules enforced by the ASA.

She added: “CAP will carry out a 12 month review after the new rule comes into force to make sure it’s meeting its objective to prevent harmful gender stereotypes.”

Enacting change

Since the ASA shone a spotlight on the issue last year, 57% of UK marketers have admitted that the impending clampdown has impacted on the imagery they use in their own campaigns.

51% of the 500 UK respondents questioned agreed it was important to represent modern day society when choosing marketing imagery. This showed progress on 2016 when the figure sat at just 30%.

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.

Speaking to The Drum last year, FCB Inferno’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.

She argued though, that 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 last year's Cannes Lions winners to see how many had senior female creatives on their teams, and Pashley said the results were "appalling." In last year’s film category, for example, only 9% of Gold-winning campaigns had at least one senior female creative.

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