Wedding and windbills

Is the credit crunch going to have an impact on guest numbers at eco-villages? Rhiannon Hanfman reve

Last week I drove my friend Judi Buttner to Loch Ness to officiate at a wedding. Judi is the Findhorn Foundation’s official marriage celebrant and can legally perform weddings not only in the community but anywhere in Scotland. The Foundation has, for at least ten years, had its own celebrant so that community people who do not, as a rule, want a traditional church wedding could have the kind of ceremony they prefer without needing to go the Registrar’s office to formalise it.

She is very busy these days with engagements throughout the Highlands, hence the trip to Lock Ness. More couples and not only those with an alternative outlook want to create individual ceremonies that incorporate words that are meaningful to them. I have been to a number of these events and each one is different and all are moving in their own way. This particular wedding took place on a boat in the middle of the loch in the shadow of Urquhart Castle. It was a very small and informal affair with family only, nevertheless the bridal pair was decked out in full wedding kit. Unusual as the venue was, some conventions do persist.

While waiting for the ceremony to begin I was chatting with a young woman who was one of the crew and learned that the number of visitors to the Inverness area is down on last year by 300 a day. Why, is no mystery. The cost of fuel, the credit squeeze and economic shambles we are in are keeping people away.

As a result of that conversation I was curious as to whether the Foundation was also experiencing low guest numbers. Fortunately, it seems not, or at least not yet. The numbers are pretty much the same as last year. This is good news for us but it would not be unreasonable to suppose that the economic downturn will reduce guest numbers eventually.

I wonder, however, if the reverse may not happen. When times are tough, people begin to question accepted truths like, for example, the superiority of free market economics, and will look for alternatives. An eco-village model such as Findhorn provides alternatives on many levels. The free market is increasingly becoming unsustainable and people may want to look for something that is.

Only yesterday, I spotted an interesting alternative in the front garden of my friends, George Goudsmit and Mary Inglis. There was a large metal object that looked like a cross between a bird and a modern sculpture, turning gently in the wind. George, who runs AES, a solar heating company in Forres, explained to me that it was a wind turbine designed to operate on the roof of an ordinary house. He and his neighbour hope to promote it and had placed it in the garden to see what interest it generated.

It certainly got my attention. Single-dwelling windmills have already been manufactured but some have the unpleasant side effect of making the house shake when they are going flat out. Apparently this turbine does not do that. What it does do is produce about 500w of electricity. The cost is reasonable too. George thinks it could pay for itself within three years. It’s encouraging to learn of a green energy option that doesn’t cost the earth.

It’s a bit of a ramble from weddings to windmills and sustainability. The common theme, if there is one, is change—change of status, change of lifestyle, change in the world. In the community we talk about change as a good thing, generally. The changes afoot in the world at the moment are challenging and it remains to be seen how we meet them, individually and collectively. The thought I am left with is that in the I Ching the hexagram symbolising ‘danger’ is the same as ‘opportunity’.

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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