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Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

A new report by the Advertising Standards Authority says a “tougher” stance must be taken on negative gender stereotyping.

Dads don’t go to Iceland. In fact, they can’t. Have you ever seen a dad in Iceland? No! Don’t be stupid. It’s mums that go to Iceland – if they find the time after being magnetically pulled towards that bloke on the beach with a can of Lynx Africa and emptying the Fairy Liquid for their offspring to make a rocket with. Hang on, what’s that her husband’s eating? It’s a Yorkie – you know, for boys. If girls eat them, they die.

Adverts are chock-full of gendered messaging – and obviously it’s not all bad. No one seriously thinks girls can’t handle “man crisps” McCoys or that dads that go to Iceland will be beaten out by Kerry Katona wielding a 24 Piece King Prawn Party Selection. Yet many adverts feature insidious messages that can slowly shape our perception of the world. Are all women supposed to be at the kitchen sink? Is yoghurt really the source of a woman’s orgasm? Are men incapable of looking after their own children and are they all sofa oafs unwilling – nay, unable – to iron a shirt or clean a kitchen tap?

Gender stereotypes like these have a negative impact on both women and men. A new report on gender stereotyping in advertising by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) argues that gender stereotypes “can lead to mental, physical and social harm which can limit the potential of groups and individuals”. In particular, young children easily internalise the messages they see. The report, entitled Deceptions, Perceptions, and Harm, argues that a “tougher line” needs to be taken on ads with stereotypical gender roles, or ads that mock people for not conforming to gender stereotypes.

Before now, the ASA has regulated adverts that sexualise women or present women who are unhealthily thin. Now, the CAP (who author the UK Advertising Codes) will develop new standards for ads that feature gender stereotypes, and the ASA will enforce these rules.

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“Such portrayals can limit how people see themselves, how others see them, and limit the life decisions they take. Tougher standards in the areas we’ve identified will address harms and ensure that modern society is better represented,” explained Ella Smillie, the lead author of the report.

This doesn’t mean you’ll no longer see mums doing the washing or dads mowing the lawn. The regulations haven’t yet been drawn up, but the report has examples of problematic adverts. If a woman is solely responsible for cleaning up while her family make a mess, for example, this could be flagged. In turn, adverts that show men trying and failing to do simple household tasks will be deemed a problem. The ASA isn’t a pre-emptive body, so they won’t go around mercilessly banning these adverts in a way that would make your dad (or mum, or sister) scream “political correctness gone mad!”. Rather, the organisation deals with complaints the public make and then issues sanctions if advertisers break the CAP code.

So, are you beach body ready? This infamous advert was part of the inspiration behind the new report and upcoming regulations. Although complaints about the ad were upheld by the ASA, this was in fact because Protein World, the advertiser, was making false claims about health and nutrition. The sexism in the advert that many objected to was not regulated by the ASA, and thus exposed a gap in its policies.

There are many similar adverts that have prompted complaints about gender stereotyping but that the ASA has not investigated or sanctioned because of this gap in the current regulations. An advert for Aptamil baby milk prompted complaints when it inferred boys could grow up to be rock climbers while girls become ballerinas. The ASA did not find grounds for a formal investigation. Last August, Gap was accused of sexism in adverts where boys were labelled “little scholars” and girls “social butterflies”. The ASA did not investigate after Gap took the adverts down itself following social media backlash.

Yet it is not just women who are limited by gender stereotypes in advertising. Between 2015 and 2016, the ASA considered 1,378 complaints related to the depiction of women and men. Of these, 465 cases dealt with the portrayal of men.

The ASA did not uphold complaints against a KFC advert which featured two men arguing about who was more manly. When one man mocked the other for having scented candles, the mocked man replied: “You know those candles help with my anxiety...  You're a monster.” Many complaints said the advert equated anxiety with a lack of masculinity, perpetuating the view that men should not admit to mental health issues. Under its old regulations, the ASA did not consider the ad would cause serious or widespread offence, or perpetuate damaging stereotypes. Though it is as yet unclear whether the new rules would see this advert banned, it is encouraging that similar adverts will now be challenged by the regulations.

And that’s the crux of it. Though many blame “feminazis” for narrowing the confines of acceptable and unacceptable media, these regulations should be celebrated even by those who don’t consider themselves feminist. Although a single advert might not make a man feel as though he has to behave or look a certain way, the ASA’s report explains how adverts can cumulatively affect us. Women and men aren’t born thinking they can do this or can’t do that – our media helps to shape this. “While advertising is only one of many factors that contribute to unequal gender outcomes, tougher advertising standards can play an important role in tackling inequalities and improving outcomes for individuals, the economy and society as a whole,” said Guy Parker, chief executive of the ASA.

So if Fairy Liquid, or Iceland, or Yorkie can make little boys and little girls feel that anything is possible – why shouldn’t they? Besides, aren’t we all bored of seeing lazy men and uptight women on TV? Shouldn't adverts be a little more imaginative? 

The CAP will report publicly on its progress developing the new rules by the end of 2017, with the new standards coming into force in 2018. 

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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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