Oops we broke EU rules

How the government has had to change its guidance for car manufacturers after it was caught flouting

My favourite word today is ‘emblazoned’. That’s what adverts for cars will have to be from now on - emblazoned with details of fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, thanks to a sudden change in advertising rules by the government.

The 4x4 campaign has been working on this for about a year now, but the endgame was surprisingly easy, with the Department for Transport changing its guidelines for advertising within three months of asking. They haven’t come over all green, or even responded to the high cost of petrol, but were correcting a legal error they made more than seven years ago in exempting the majority of ads from an EU law.

One of the aims of the 4x4 campaign has always been to get advertising rules changed, since we were fed up seeing our efforts to change the image of 4x4s counteracted by shiny ads on billboards and in magazines that contained nothing to show their climate impact – or the colossal amounts they cost to run. Complaining to the Advertising Standards Agency about specific ads got us nowhere - we always got the answer that the ads followed the government’s guidelines to manufacturers, and therefore were ‘compliant with the law’.

Inspecting these guidelines in more detail, we spotted the problem. A 1999 EU Directive says fuel economy and CO2 emissions information must be provided in all promotional literature for cars, and that this should be displayed as prominently as the main selling information. However, the Department for Transport’s guidelines for car advertisers (published by the Vehicle Certification Agency in 2001), wrongly stated that 'primarily graphical' adverts do not need to include CO2 information and specifically excluded billboards from their rules. Manufacturers, of course, then gleefully exploited this loophole to leave fuel economy and CO2 out of as many adverts as they could, including billboards and most ads in glossy magazines as well.

Working with the Friends of the Earth legal team, we concluded that the DfT’s guidelines represented a significant breach of European law and wrote to them in March this year to point this out. We also threatened to take it to the High Court if they didn’t bring the guidelines up to scratch, which probably helped.

After a quick review by the Department, we got confirmation yesterday that they are revising their guidance notes from today to make prominent CO2 information compulsory on all billboards and posters advertising cars in the UK.

The letter said: "We have concluded that our guidance is incorrect in respect of primarily graphical material. For this reason we will be amending this section of the Guidance Note on the VCA website by close on 20th June to read as follows;

“The Regulations define 'promotional literature' as 'all printed matter used in the marketing, advertising and promotion of a new passenger car...'. We are of the view that this definition does include material which is largely graphical, with limited textual content (perhaps containing only the model name and an advertising slogan). We therefore consider that street advertisements are subject to the requirements of the regulations.”

So that’s it. Job done with remarkably little fuss, showing what a small group can achieve when the law is on our side. Thanks to a simple letter, from now on, people choosing a car will be able to get vital information on CO2 emissions and fuel economy much more easily, and will be able to make greener and cheaper choices of car.

This, in turn, will help encourage car-makers to build more efficient vehicles, something they have been very slow to do. Despite having a Europe-wide target of reaching average emissions of 120 grams per kilometer of CO2 by 2012, most companies are way off achieving this. With information on fuel costs at their fingertips, people power and simple consumer choice should now be able to drive manufacturers in the right direction at last.

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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