How to read the Tory poll lead

Cameron's party on top in this morning's Sunday Telegraph/ICM survey.

A seemingly remarkable opinion poll in today's Sunday Telegraph that shows a Tory lead over Labour of two points -- after a week of economic gloom -- prompts Political Betting to ask:

Is it so bad that voters want to stick with nurse?

Whichever way you look at the ICM numbers -- Conservatives 38 per cent (+2), Labour 36 per cent (-2), Lib Dems 14 per cent (no change), Others 12 per cent -- they do not make happy reading for Ed Miliband and the Labour Party.

Yet, as always, outliers such as these should be treated with caution. After all, a weekly YouGov poll, published by the Sunday Times, shows an eight point lead for Labour -- Conservatives 35 per cent, Labour 43 per cent, Lib Dems 9 per cent, Others 13 per cent.

So what's going on? Over at UK Polling Report, Anthony Wells notes:

Whenever a poll shows an unusual result I offer the same caveat - sure, it could be the start of some new trend, but more often than not it turns out to be a blip caused by normal sample error. Pollsters' different methodologies have impacts upon their topline figures, and ICM tends to show some of the most positive figures for the Conservatives

Equally, YouGov tends to record some of the highest numbers for Labour. So until other polls show what ICM shows today, it's more realistic to conclude that Miliband's party still enjoys a small lead.

But before we dismiss today's numbers and move on, it's worth making a couple of points -- and neither reflects particularly well on Labour.

The first is that Labour's poll lead (if that is what it continues to be) has hardly shifted from where it was last December. Indeed its percentage share -- and that of the Conservatives -- has declined slightly. That decline is explained by the rise of the "Others" -- where once the Liberal Democrats as the "third party" would pick up the protest vote, it is now going elsewhere.

Labour is failing to pick up the protest vote because it is still blamed, at least in part, for the economic situation. It must hope that, as the parliamentary session progresses, the blame shifts from red to blue.

The second thing to acknowledge is that the unions made a tactical error last week -- an error not of intention but of timing -- and that may be reflected in the ICM numbers. As one shadow cabinet minister described it to my colleague Rafael Behr, the decision to strike less than 24 hours after George Osborne's Autumn statement was "a source of frustration". Privately, the language was doubtless far stronger. As Rafael notes in this week's Politics Column:

Miliband would gladly have let the news of [George] Osborne's economic woes reverberate through the week. Instead, the focus shifted to an issue that risks discomfort for the Labour leader, given his party's financial reliance on trade unions.

It was not to be and David Cameron and Osborne escaped from a potentially tricky week unscathed.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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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