The ADgenda: this week's most offensive advert

Fat binder tablets.

With the waistband of Britain tightening as obesity statistics grow, it’s
only understandable that adverts quietly confront us with solutions to
shrink our shameful stomachs. It’s nicer than being told off by news
articles! But, when the news lectures us about children wider than they are
tall and our imminent deaths at the hands of the Big Mac, the underlying
message is, above all, health (and maybe Britain not being picked last in
the PE class of the world). XLS Medical’s advert for their fat binder
tablets remarkably omits all possible health benefits for whatever the
cartoon science says their product does.

Of course, health isn’t their main selling point. Why would it be? It’s not
as if the name of their brand features the word “medical”, a word pointing
directly towards health in all possible uses. Marching under this universal
“medical” flag, it must be difficult to segregate your market so harshly,
but they manage it. This advert’s target is so fixed on women it’s like an
insecurity-seeking missile. The central figure, our heroine, laments at
gaining weight until she doesn’t feel like herself anymore. The images
accompanying this claim are indeed shocking deviations from being oneself:
she happily holds a baby and eats a sandwich at her desk. But the straw
that breaks the camel’s back is when she struggles to zip up her
tightly-squeezing clothes – and the penny drops. The only reason XLS
Medical would ever expect anyone to buy this is because of insecurity about
their image – insecurity which their adverts help to create.

Are men not in need of help with dieting? Or is it expected that,
since they don’t wear red dresses like on the Special K box, they’ll just
do the Manly Thing and keep drinking their beer-bellies gargantuan, sucking
in their gut when a pretty lady walks by? Targeting diet products at women
is not just perpetuating a worn-out ad stereotype like women as homemakers
or sex objects; it’s stretching the gender gap beyond repair. When men
barely get tutted for being an above-average size, women are so fervidly
encouraged to look like models that some can end up starving themselves.
And defining beauty under “medical”? Maybe the advertising world just holds
different definitions to the real world: New Medical Special K: now more
effective in keeping you presentable!

 

XLS Medical’s advert. Photograph: youtube.com
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