What did we learn today? Osborne will defend the banks. Again.

The Chancellor's Autumn Statement shows a commitment to backing the unregulated and reckless financi

Forget the bluster, the spin, the deflection of blame. Forget the bleat that "there is no money". Forget the "fake metrics". Forget "the plan to ensure we keep Britain safe from the sovereign debt crisis".

This Autumn Statement represents a welcome, if still inadequate, u-turn.

Underlying all the carrots and sticks is the Treasury's frank admission of error, the Bank of England's £75 billion (with a promise of more to come), and a frantic volte-face.

Of course, the Chancellor has had to disguise his about-turn by dressing it up as austerity, but he has dramatically relaxed fiscal consolidation -- even though public finances are, by his own admission, in far worse condition than they were just six months ago.

The Autumn Statement goes some way to acknowledging the cause of the rise in government debt and of turmoil in markets, noting that there was in the UK "the greatest expansion in debt of all the world's major economies over the last decade" and that "the full scale and persistence of that impact is slowly becoming clearer."

But while Treasury orthodoxy is finally "becoming clearer" about the scale of the crisis -- one deepened by synchronised austerity -- the Chancellor seems unable to learn the lessons and fully reverse course. While acknowledging that "the financial sector has acted as a drag on growth," the Chancellor today promised to ensure Britain "remains the home of global banks and that London is the world's pre-eminent financial centre".

In other words, the government is committed to subsidising, bailing out and rewarding the City of London -- at grave cost to public sector workers, pensioners and private firms. Their analysis, reactions and policies to this crisis remain profoundly inadequate.

For make no mistake, we stand at a pivotal moment in world history, and today our politicians and economic authorities are revealed to be disgracefully ill-prepared for it.

We remind them again: Britain is not facing a sovereign debt crisis. This is not a eurozone crisis. It is a private banking crisis: the catastrophic unravelling of the private, liberalised financial system. Governments, including our own, are not the cause of turmoil: they are victims of the turmoil in private financial markets -- in the City of London, "home to global banks".

The unregulated financial sector has lent recklessly and expensively for some thirty years to itself, to firms and to households. As a result, private indebtedness -- as both the Autumn Statement and the McKinsey Global Institute carefully document -- is at its highest as a share of income ever in history.

The unfolding and related crisis of sovereign debt is a consequence; the result of four years of futile attempts by western governments to maintain, compensate and support this bankrupt system. Osborne, in his statement today, persists in his backing of this failed order.

As rising unemployment, falling incomes and despair begins to crush western societies; as "indignants" in Britain, Europe and the US lead protests against more cuts in pay and pensions and are brutally assaulted by police for their pains, we are confronted by a frightening reality.

Our leaders and their advisers simply cannot absorb the lessons of the crisis. As a result they have abrogated any responsibility to lead. Instead, they struggle manfully to maintain and uphold the old, catastrophic financial system -- and are incapable of constructing a new, global order.

The resulting policy vacuum is frightening. No wonder the Polish foreign minister warns of "a crisis of apocalyptic proportions".

Ann Pettifor is executive director of Advocacy International and a fellow of the New Economics Foundation

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