Why the ASA's regulations on gender stereotyping don't go far enough

In the last throes of 2018 the ASA announced that, from June, it would be introducing new rules to clamp down on gender stereotyping in ads.

Maybe the timing was chosen with the ghost of this infamous Asda Christmas ad looming like Jacob Marley in their minds.

For me, the regulations, which say that “ads must not include gender tropes that are likely to cause harm, or serious widespread offence”, cannot come soon enough.

It’s just a shame that now they’re here, they’re little more than chain rattling and simply won’t be scary enough to make the populace watching them, or the people creating them, change their attitudes.

Gender stereotypes are ingrained on the consciousness of the nation. Linked directly to this, using gender stereotypes in ads is ingrained in the consciousness of the people making them. They’re easy to use, they’ve always been used, and they sell products.

Which sometimes is understandable. Not all stereotypes are bad. You do only get a few seconds to get your message across, and, when used creatively, they can help. And, there have been some truly great ads created by people smashing down those stereotypes – think This Girl Can.

But what this double whammy of national acceptance and creative laziness means is that this is not a simple fix. It’s a carrot and stick situation, and at the moment the ASA has decided to focus on the stick. Sadly, what they actually have is a wet noodle.

If real change is going to happen, this subject needs to be treated like a societal issue – such as drink driving or road safety – and tackled as such.

These were real ingrained problems that were effectively and memorably tackled by great government advertising. And gender stereotyping needs the same approach. We need to change the way people think. It’s a systemic issue, so you need a systemic solution – a properly conceived government advertising campaign designed to highlight the massive importance of the issue to the people, and then go about fixing it.

Another positive of this approach is that government ads are judged in a different way. A potential fine won’t work if you’re up against it on a client brief. If you are doing work for clients, then you still need to worry about shifting biscuits or toilet paper, so it’s easy to slip into the old tried and tested and deliver more lazy work. Public service ads don’t have this pressure and allow somewhat more creative freedom.

There is also a second strand to this fix. A root and branch review of how advertising is taught and progressed when creatives are in their formative years in agencies. This isn’t to say that the colleges, training courses and on-the-job aren’t fantastic ways to learn, we have some of the best creatives and creative output in the world because of them. But I believe it would be hugely beneficial to the future of the industry to review and reassess how much, even unconsciously, our young creatives are being herded towards the use of lazy stereotyping.

If we are going to see a different future for advertising, we need to pay attention to the lessons being presented to us in front of our eyes and do much more to mend the mistakes the of the past.

Lenah Ueltzen-Gabell is executive vice president, EMEA, at Wasserman

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