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ASA reviews ban on harmful gender stereotyping

Posted on 25 January 2021

In 2019, following public consultation, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) committed to banning harmful gender stereotypes in ads with the introduction of a new rule into the CAP and BCAP codes, providing that:

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

Several rulings have followed pursuant to the new rule and, now that it has bedded in, the ASA has completed its first twelve month review, considering the efficacy of the rule and the associated guidance on preventing harmful gender stereotypes and the need, if any, for further monitoring. The conclusion: whilst the rule and guidance are meeting their policy objectives and should be retained in their current form, further monitoring is required as the ASA is yet to rule on a number of principles within the CAP guidance.

Areas of the guidance yet to be considered by the ASA include ads featuring pressure to conform to an idealised gender-stereotypical body shape, ads mocking people for not conforming to gender stereotypes, and ads featuring children or potentially vulnerable people.

In addition, CAP have issued further guidance on the scope of the rule's application, stating that the ASA may also apply the new rule when considering complaints against ads involving sexualisation, objectification and body image.

Looking back at the decisions that have been made since the rule was introduced, what lessons have we learned?

Humour does not automatically mitigate potential harm

The ASA received 128 complaints in relation to a Mondalez advert for Philadelphia cheese, featuring two hapless and inattentive dads leaving a baby on a buffet conveyor belt whilst distracted by food. The complaints, which concerned the risk of harm created by perpetuating the stereotype that men are less capable for caring children than women, were investigated and upheld by the ASA. The ASA concluded that the ad fell foul of a specific example provided in the guidance, as "an ad that depicts a man or a woman failing to achieve a task specifically because of their gender", and the humour was problematic on the basis that it was derived explicitly from the use of a harmful stereotype.

Popular culture similarly does not automatically mitigate potential harm

In ruling against an ad for search engine optimisation services which included the line "YOU DO THE GIRL BOSS THING. WE'LL DO THE SEO THING", the ASA dismissed the advertiser's explanation that "girl boss" was a reference to a book and popular culture movement, considering that many people were unlikely to be familiar with either. As a result, the gendered term "girl boss" reinforced the harmful gender stereotype that a female boss was a novelty and that women were incapable in relation to IT.

Ads that directly contrast stereotypical gender roles or characteristics are risky but not automatically prohibited

VW's advert featuring a man in a tent on the side of a mountain, two male astronauts in space and a male para-athlete with the line "we can achieve anything", contrasted with a woman sitting on a bench beside a pram was held to perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes by showing men engaged in adventurous activities whilst a woman occupied a caregiving role.

Likewise, complaints made against an advert by PCSpecialist, which featured three men performing different activities on computers and included the line "From the specialists for the specialists", were upheld on the grounds that the ad "strongly implied only men could excel in the specialisms and roles depicted", and was therefore likely to cause harm.

In contrast, however, Nestlé's ad featuring a female ballet dancer, a male drummer and a male rower was considered not to perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes, given that the ad portrayed each skill to be equally difficult and demanding.

Similarly, the ASA did not uphold a complaint against Rightmove's advert, which featured a father repeatedly seeking hiding places from his wife and four daughters, playing noisily around the house. In challenging whether the ad perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes, the complainant argued that the ad depicted women and girls as "demanding and annoying", and men as failing to take responsibility for childcare. Whilst the ASA did acknowledge multiple references to gender stereotypes in the ad, including showing the father reading a magazine about trucks, his daughters doing his hair and makeup, and ending with him disappearing into his garden shed, these references were not held to be likely to cause harm. In particular, there was nothing in the ad to suggest the father was incapable of caring for his children, or that the children were particularly annoying on the basis of their gender. Indeed, the ASA notes a similar impression could have been achieved with boys being loud or disruptive whilst participating in activities stereotypically associated with males.

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