Moms who can’t fix a faucet, dads who can’t change a diaper, women obsessed with body image, boys bullied for dancing ballet—the UK has officially banned harmful gender stereotypes like these in advertising.
The British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which oversees television, online, and social media content, announced in December that ad agencies had just six months to eliminate the use of negative gender stereotypes in their marketing across platforms. Now, it’s taken effect.
“Harmful gender stereotypes in ads can contribute to inequality in society, with costs for all of us. Put simply, we found that some portrayals in ads can, over time, play a part in limiting people's potential," ASA Chief Executive Guy Parker says .
Advocates have championed the decision as a step in the right direction to normalizing gender equality. However, the ASA’s wording was a bit ambiguous: they don’t define the term “harmful," and they still allow for advertisements to depict people performing stereotypical tasks or enjoying stereotypical activities. There’s also no mention of whether or how harmful stereotypes targeting LGBTQIA+ folks will be addressed.
Ella Smillie, an ad-policy expert, told BBC reporters that harm will be determined based on whether the ad presents gender stereotypes as the only option available to that gender.
“So for example, if you had a woman doing the cleaning, we wouldn't anticipate a problem," she says . “But if you had an advert with a man creating lots of mess and putting his feet up while a woman cleaned up around him, and it was very clear that she was the only person that did that at home, that's the kind of thing that could be a problem."
The rules are clearer when it comes to the depiction of children. Advertisements that belittle or make fun of boys who prefer traditionally feminine activities, for example, will be (rightfully) considered harmful.
Overall, the ASA defines gender stereotyping in six categories : roles, characteristics, mocking people for not conforming to a stereotype, sexualization, objectification, and unhealthy body image. The latter three had already been banned in the UK.
Craig Jones, director of communications for the ASA, says the new ruling is open-ended for a reason.
“You won't see an end to men doing DIY in ads or women doing shopping, because we believe that not all gender stereotypes are harmful, but we've set out examples of ones we think are harmful," he says . “We spoke to a lot of people, and we found that these images... can lead to men and women, but particularly women and young girls, having a narrower sense of their place in the world,"
Viewers will have a hand in flagging offensive ads, according to Jones. People can launch a complaint if they see an advertisement that perpetuates negative gender roles, and a jury will decide whether it should still be allowed to run.
However, the ASA hasn’t always taken complaints seriously. As recently as 2013, the ASA ruled that a supermarket ad portraying a mother as the only member of her household preparing for Christmas didn’t count as harmful—despite receiving more than 600 consumer complaints .
Will the UK’s new guidelines inspire change in other countries? Experts aren’t so sure. In the United States, imposing such a restriction on ad agencies may be impossible because of the First Amendment. But the UK is also the fourth-largest advertising market in the world, so it’s not out of the question that other emerging or competitive markets might follow their precedent, should it prove effective.
Photo by Con Karampelas on Unsplash
Around the world, regulations like these are nothing new. France requires advertisers to provide a warning label on any images that have been Photoshopped, and they’ve banned ads that portray ultra-thin models. Belgium, South Africa, Norway, and India have similar legislation .
Advertisers themselves seem to be on board. Emily Knox, head of social and content at Tug digital performance marketing agency, tells Mobile Marketing Magazine that ad professionals already knew society was “becoming far more ‘woke.’"
“The people you see in content, in ads, and other material shape the way you see the world, yourself, and the possibilities for yourself," Knox says. “Women and men don’t want to be told that their value and looks are intrinsically linked, or that certain bodies are worth more than others."
But it’s not enough for advertisers to cease gender stereotyping simply because of the ASA regulations, says Sue Unerman, chief transformation officer at entertainment giant MediaCom UK. Rather, they must understand that their work should reflect their customers’ lived experiences.
“It’s also important that the industry sees the ban as a sign that it can no longer rely on gender stereotypes to sell products," Unerman says. “It is, frankly, lazy advertising. Good ads don’t do it, because the inherent job of advertising is to speak to truth and represent the world around us accurately and fairly. The move by the ASA will make the industry pull up its socks and push for ads that are based on true insight into the audience, not simply assumptions about consumers."