Volkswagen and Philadelphia are the first brands to fall foul of the Advertising Standards Authority's (ASA) new gender stereotyping rules. However, Clearcast approved the ads and has suggested that the regulatory body has been overzealous with the bans.
The ASA announced its stricter gender stereotyping rules in December and brought the ban into full force earlier this summer. The rule works to prevents ads from including “gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence”.
Despite this, the ad watchdog has already launched investigations into Volkswagen, Philadelphia and Buxton bottled water after it received multiple complaints that challenged whether their TV ads broke the new rule.
Philadelphia received 128 complaints after it aired a TV ad that featured two bumbling dads that accidentally leave their kids on a conveyor belt.
In the spot, two new parents are out with their baby. After the mum pushes the baby into its daddy's hands, he bumps into another dad who's holding a baby carrier. Both notice a deliciously spread Philadelphia bagels circling around on a conveyor belt. In their haste to grab the food, both fail to notice that their babies are now also circling the belt. After grabbing hid kid from the conveyor, one dad tells him "don't tell mum!"
In its defense, Mondelez – Philadelphia’s parent company – said the ad was intended to highlight the appeal of the product by showing a humorous situation in which parents found it so delicious they got momentarily distracted while looking after their children. Meanwhile, Clearcast thought the ads depicted a momentary lapse in concentration by tired, new parents, rather than fathers being unable to look after the babies properly because of their gender.
Volkswagen got pulled up for a TV ad for the eGolf after the ASA received three complaints. People felt it depicted men engaging in adventurous activities, while women are seen in more care-giving roles.
The spot opened with a couple camping in a tent. With the woman asleep, the man turns off the light and zips up the tent. Then the viewers realise they are camping while hanging off a cliff edge. The next scene depicts two male astronauts in a spaceship, with one barely visible female astronaut floating in the background. The next vignette shows a male para-athlete with a prosthetic leg doing the long jump. The final scene depicts a woman sat with a pram, as an eGolf zooms by.
Volkswagen argued that the core message of its eGolf TV ad centred on the ability of the human spirit to adapt to challenges and change brought about by circumstances. It also argued that the characters were shown performing actions that were not stereotypical to one gender. Clearcast said that the ad as a whole was balanced, showing females partaking in adventurous activities alongside males and the shot of the mother with the pram at the end was a reasonable stereotype.
Buxton bottled water brought in five complaints for 'Here's to the up and coming' - a TV ad three characters practicing their different skills while drinking Buxton water. This is all interspersed with images of water flowing through rock. The three characters are a female ballerina, a male drummer and a male rower.
Five complainants questioned whether the ad perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes by contrasting the men and the woman doing activities that they considered were stereotypically associated with each gender.
In response to the challenge, Nestle said that the ad featured real people, who were all high achievers in ballet, drumming and rowing. It argued that they were not meant to be defined by gender, but by the difficulties they had to overcome. Clearcast said the ad did not say the roles portrayed were always uniquely associated with one gender. And while it noted that the female character was shown to be a ballet dancer, it felt the portrayal was neither delicate nor dainty.
The ASA decided not to ban the Buxton bottled water ad as it didn't break the new gender stereotype rule, agreeing that it depicted high achievers and illustrated the hard work and perseverance that had gone into developing their skills to an expert level.
However, the ASA did ban both the Volkswagen and the Philadelphia ads.
In regards to Philadelphia, although the ASA recognised that the ad depicted new parents learning to adapt to parenthood, it said that the combination of the opening scene where the mother hands the father the baby and the final scene where one of the dads tells his kid to "not tell mum" relied on the stereotype that men were unable to care for their children as well as women. It, therefore, banned the ad, as it considered that the use of humour did not mitigate the 'harmful' stereotype.
The Volkswagen ad was banned after the ASA said viewers would focus on the occupations of the characters featured in the ad and observe a direct contrast between how the male and female characters were depicted.
It said because it "juxtaposed images of men in extraordinary environments and carrying out adventurous activities with women who appeared passive or engaged in a stereotypical caregiving role" it concluded 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."
Clearcast, who cleared all three ads, has suggested that the ASA may have been overzealous in regards to the new rule. It said it had been confident that each of the ads complied with the rule. A Clearcast spokesperson said that the ASA’s “interpretation of the ads against the new rule and guidance went further than [it] had anticipated and has implications for a wide range of ads.”
It said it was “naturally disappointed that the ASA didn’t share [its] view of the two ads it ruled against.”
Although the IPA welcomed the introduction of the new rule, it "stressed the importance of ensuring its implementation, along with the accompanying guidance, avoided unintended, damaging consequences."
It pointed to the stifling of creativity or the creation of new stereotypes as potential damaging consequences.
Geraint Lloyd-Taylor, partner in the UK law firm Lewis Silkin said that while it the ASA has good intentions, it "seemingly let its zeal to enforce the new rules on harmful gender stereotypes override its common sense in this first batch."
“As it stands the ASA’s definition of ‘harm’ is unworkable, and urgently needs to be clarified. Moving forward, I hope that these advertisers seek an independent review of the latest decisions and that the ASA rows back from its current hard-line approach," he argued.