New Rules for Gender Stereotyping in Advertising

Cast Your Mind Back

You know the adverts. Woman struggling to reverse park in her tiny car; man sitting with his feet up while woman beavers around tidying up after the family; little girl growing up to be a ballerina, little boy growing up to be an engineer? The list is long. And probably longer than you’d realise. Gender stereotyping is so deeply rooted in our media psyche that many of these gender role assignments are probably lost on the majority of viewers. We see them so often. They are such a fundamental part of our media memory that we often don’t even notice them. Well, think again.

Following a recent review by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) on the impact of gender stereotyping in advertising, the Committee on Advertising Practice (CAP) has set in place a new rule which explains that:

“[Advertisements] must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.”

The ASA review found evidence to underline that gender stereotyping adverts are harmful as they restrict the choices, aspirations, and opportunities of children, young people, and adults. In addition to limiting potential, they can be seen to contribute to inequalities in society. While gender roles in life are shifting and the battle for equality continues, it is understandable that advertisements should mirror this change, supporting gender neutrality.

In Practice

Now just to be clear, the rule does not mean that advertisements cannot feature men and women in stereotyped roles. For example, a woman doing the shopping or a man doing DIY. Just that the depiction of these roles cannot be negative (i.e. woman doing shopping while man sits at home watching the football). Advertisements should be created with a gender-neutral overview and will be assessed on a case by case basis by the ASA.

Looking at media through these new gender-neutral glasses, you might remember ads from your youth that would now be considered inappropriate. Some brands have embraced this and have acknowledged their historic mistakes by making-over old advertisements with gender neutral edits. Budweiser were particularly quick off the mark in this regard.

Evolution or Unimportant

So, is all this necessary?

The loudest voices would say yes. Of course. Times have changed. Gender roles are evolving. Advertisements and media representations of how we live should evolve with them. Life is not as it was in the 50s, therefore, advertisements cannot keep reinforcing the ideals endorsed at that time. Supporters of the new rule argue that gender stereotyped adverts perpetuate unhealthy myths. The ideas that that dads are useless, that women have lesser abilities, that physical jobs are for men etc. These, often small, misconceptions build up over time and can be damaging to our subconscious, our decision making, how we teach our children, and how young adults go on to make decisions about their future.

Debate, however, can also be heard that while these are important issues and should not be ignored, they are not in fact, as important as the bigger equality battles which we need to fight first. It is suggested that we should be using our energy to push for equality in pay, better parental leave conditions, eradicating bullying in the workplace, helping victims of domestic violence and sexual harassment amongst other priority issues. If we conflate these vital missions with other less pressing problems (such as gender neutrality in advertising), we risk devaluing our efforts and failing on all counts.

Whatever view you have, the new rule is in place. The ASA outlined these new conditions at the end of 2018. Advertisers are now working to prepare for their introduction. It will certainly be interesting to see how these changes take effect in the months to come. Which brands fully embrace them and which are slow on the uptake.

Valerie Ludlow

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