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.

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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.

Via Twitter @pimlicat

“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 features editor at Shortlist.com, she was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer, and tweets at @ameliargh.