The trouble with the internet: people still too different

E-commerce utopia remains out of reach.

The internet knows no borders. That’s the way most people tend to view it, at least. But as online commerce comes of age, this utopian view seems increasingly naive.

As an increasing number of businesses look to take advantage of the web as a medium for commerce, not just communication, many of them are finding themselves frustrated by the fact that… well, people are different.

The recent Globalocity eCommerce conference saw several hundred retailers, Silicon Valley whizz-kids, and finance experts gather to discuss all things online shopping.

At the event I spent some considerable talking to people from a number of successful US retailers – department stores, fashion brands, even travel agencies - many of whom are very well-established global brands. It was clear that many of them were struggling with the fact that launching a globally-accessible eCommerce portal has not opened the flood gates for hoardes of overseas consumers, desperate to buy US consumer goods.

What is stopping them? Surely given the opportunity everyone would prefer to shop at US department stores, right? Perhaps... But they a good reason, and more to the point, they need to be able to pay for their goods in a way that suits them. The newsflash? Not everyone in the world has a credit card.

So, it begins to become apparent, that rolling out an eCommerce strategy is not really all that different to setting up a physical presence in new markets - minus the some substantial property and staffing costs, of course.

Businesses still need to invest in the market - understanding their consumers, not just in terms of what they wish to buy, but how they wish to buy it.

For those US retailers at Globalocity, the markets really getting the saliva flowing were Latin America (Brazil in particular), Russia and continental Europe. But frustrations abound when it comes to actually getting people to pay for things.

Anyone who has spent any time looking at the Brazilian retail sector will know that consumer spending habits can only be described as unique.

Having the ability to pay for goods in installments is essential in Brazil - people  expect to be able to spread their payment for everything (even basic goods like groceries) over a long periods of time. And a payment system - the Boleto Bancario - has been developed specifically to meet this requirement. The challenge now, though, is replicating that online.

And, of course, it is not just Brazil that requires a bespoke solution. Cash looms large in Europe and arguably more so in Russia. And of course, cash has no place in the e-commerce ecosystem. And yet again, retailers who think that offering customers the ability to pay by credit card is sufficient,  come a cropper, and quickly find out that alternatives have to be found.

The obvious alternative - cash on delivery - creates problems for the retailer, who has to ship the goods before receipt of payment, but new companies are developing neater systems, most notably the Qiwi terminals that enable Russian consumers to change cash into electronic money.

In short, every market has its quirks, and even in e-commerce, national borders are still very much in place.

James Ratcliff is Group Editor of  Cards and Payments at VRL Financial News.

Photograph: Getty Images

James Ratcliff is Group Editor of  Cards and Payments at VRL Financial News.

Photo: ASA
Show Hide image

Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA