A virtual route to the White House

The internet is poised to play an unprecedented role in determining who will succeed George W Bush a

Republican hopefuls in the battle to win their party’s nomination for the 2008 presidential election have so far opted to announce their bids from traditional venues: Rudolph Guiliani on CNN's Larry King Live and Mitt Romney from the Henry Ford Museum. John McCain varied it slightly by opting for a more comedic approach, making his presidential intentions public on CBS's Late Night with David Letterman.

Slightly less traditional, Democrat John Edwards dispensed with the usual prepared text and crowd of political groupies when he was filmed announcing his bid in New Orleans' hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward. But it was Edwards' hot-ticket competitors, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who made made big political waves for political Web surfers: they scrapped television entirely to instead announce their bids online.

Obama's announcement video appeared on his website on 16 January and, thanks to the provided code, was embedded within hours in hundreds of blogs and websites. Just five days later, Clinton followed Obama's lead, and a strangely similar (but not shareable) video on her website announced “I'm In.”

What's the strategy behind these surprising online announcements?

There are a few possibilities. For one, online videos let the candidates have complete control of timing, an aspect Clinton took full advantage of when she announced so soon after Obama and on the same Saturday as Bush's State of the Union address. Beginning their presidential campaigns online also allowed the candidates to take control their image from the get-go and make up for any personality flaws. Clinton, for example, is sometimes criticised as being cold and not personal, but you wouldn't guess that when she's beaming at you like a best friend relaxing on an overstuffed couch.

In a time of blossoming online relationships, it's only natural to assume people will find watching a video from the comfort of their personal computer a more intimate experience than watching a nationally televised speech of a politician flanked by crowds of screaming supporters. Viewers watching Obama speak close-up online might feel his words are directed solely at them and may be much more likely to listen if they feel he will concentrate on addressing their individual needs.

Obama and Clinton eliminated distance, creating a virtual bridge from sea to shining sea, and causing an explosion of excitement as Americans discovered who could occupy the White House in two years' time. By avoiding the traditional format of television, the two Democrats cunningly prevented their launch messages from becoming adorned by the partisan commentary of political journalists. Instead, their online videos subtly encouraged viewers click at will, forming their own opinions and often creating free publicity for the candidates through linking and discussion.

Announcing online is just another creative political stunt, but don't think it won't happen again, and there's no denying the Internet is playing a bigger role in the 2008 presidential election than ever before. Candidates from all parties are devoting valuable time and resources into developing their websites into key campaign tools that let voters “interact” extensively with them. Suddenly it's not only the media but ordinary voters who are the scrutinizing watchdogs of candidates' every moves.

Watch out, the road to the U.S. presidency is going to be strewn with more cyber surprises, and logging onto candidates' websites may begin to feel like participating in a highly interactive, informational online arcade. But the campaign that gets most creative in virtual strategising might just end up on top in 2008.

Hana Bieliauskas is a junior at Ohio University majoring in magazine journalism. She is currently studying in London.
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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