Food: It's Not For Girls

Pot Noodle joined the list of brands which seem determined to drive away women. They should realise that ironic hipster sexism is still sexism.

Yesterday, the beautiful city of Newcastle – hometown of one half of the Vagenda, both halves of Ant and Dec, and the endless source of entertainment that was Byker Grove – was marred by the appearance of a terrible visitor: the Piri-Piri Chicken Van.

What is the Piri-Piri Chicken Van, we hear you cry. Well, it basically does what it says on the flimsy foil lid, being as it is a van launching a new flavour of Pot Noodle here in the lucky, lucky UK. Pot Noodle and its compatriots haven’t exactly been known for their sensitivity in the past when it comes to gender issues (it is, after all, the "slag of all snacks"), but this latest incarnation of their marketing strategy really does take the preservative-laden biscuit. "Peel the top off a hottie!" is the slogan, plastered alongside two closely aligned Pot Noodle lids that are deliberately juxtaposed to simulate breasts. And if that reference was too subtle for you, there’s a half-naked girl on the photo beside it, just waiting to have her top peeled off by the slathering consumer who’s in the mood for a walk down – in their words – "Easy Street". It's enough to make you crawl back to the Iceland store, apologising for any offence you saw in "Because mums are heroes" and begging them to employ you permanently in their managerial scheme.

Of course, we’re not the first ones to raise objections to this questionable campaign. One unfortunate young lady known only as Emma dared to stick her head above the parapet on the Piri-Piri Chicken Van’s Facebook page – prompting a response from official Pot Noodle social media that she didn’t understand "tongue-in-cheek fun for all" but "sorry you feel that way". Our own attempts to contact Pot Noodle PR resulted in an email that similarly told us they were "sorry if they had caused offence", which, as anyone who has been forced to apologise against their will for a misdemeanor which they still view as entirely justified knows, is the biggest cop-out apology known to humanity.

Now, we all know that "hipster sexism" has been all the rage ever since American Apparel first launched their "now open" campaign, and it has been operating alongside the recent "new wave of feminism" as ostensible proof that we’re really not needed. We’re past all that now, you see. All this sexism stuff in the media might well be exactly the same as it was 50 years ago, but this time around it’s ironic. So can you leave us to stare at some tits in peace? You’re making too much noise at the back.

Except, of course, there's nothing all that hip about Pot Noodle. Pot Noodle is Lad Culture in snack form, an edible Page Three; drooling, retrograde sexism, and any PR exec who tries to tell us otherwise (Hi, Alex!) can jog on. Pot noodle aren't cleverly challenging sexist stereotypes by mocking them – they're perpetuating those stereotypes, one "hot bird" at a time.

Such a lack of imagination in advertising is enough to make anyone as bored and jaded as a steaming hot model hired to "sex up" a pot of instant noodles. Is this really all that the collective human imagination can give? In a month where Cambridge University students have been celebrating the end of the long long-held tradition of bikini-clad women jelly-wrestling in a paddling pool to (mostly male) spectators to signal the end of their annual exams (yes, really), did nobody over at Pot Noodle raise a tentative hand when "Peel the top off a hottie" came to the drawing board? Or are they all actually, seriously a bunch of back-slapping misogynists who were raised in a vacuum and presumably laughed raucously at one customer’s response to brave old Emma on Facebook – "Feminist, get back in the kitchen and make me a Pot Noodle"? If so, then maybe they could use that line for their next product launch.

The failure of executives from the macho world of advertising to gauge the public mood is nothing new (just look at what happened to Femfresh last year), but surely it's high time that they start listening. From Pot Noodle's campaign, you'd think that no one with a vagina had ever ingested one, when in fact Holly once felt so strongly about her right to consume one that, after being shouted at during her snack break, she quit her job over it. Is she to be condemned to the fluorescent umaminess of supernoodles? It looks like it.

And thus, Pot Noodles have been added to the list of foods that women the country over are seemingly not permitted to consume. A list which includes McCoys (Man Crisps), Yorkie Bars (Not for girls), Irn Bru (weird preoccupation with mum's boobs), Burger King (blowjob imagery) Weetabix (girls can't be superheroes) and, thanks to the date-rapey tendencies of their advertising, microwaveable burger manufacturers Rustlers.

Are these companies, along with Gwyneth Paltrow, part of some kind of global conspiracy to keep the female sex hungry? Because, from where we're standing, the only food we're allowed to eat is a green smoothie and a fucking insubstantial Cadbury's Crispello.

It's all very well blaming magazines for our current food neurosis with their championing of emaciated bodies and their diet tips, but food manufacturers are some of the worst culprits for gendered advertising. It's about time someone brought them up to date. The worst thing about the Pot Noodle campaign is its predatory sense of entitlement, as though 'peeling the top off a hottie' is as simple a transaction as picking a snack pot off the shelf. According to Alex from Pot Noodle, this is "not intended to demean women in any way". "As a brand targeting a male, youth audience, we do push the boundaries", he emailed from the 1970s.

The solution, of course, to this kind of thing is a easy one: don't let anyone who eats Pot Noodle take your top off, ever. A philosophy that we're sure many of you lived by anyway. As you were.

Part of Pot Noodle's Facebook ad campaign. Photograph: Pot Noodle/Facebook

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett and Holly Baxter are co-founders and editors of online magazine, The Vagenda.

Photo: ASA
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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