Who: Advertising Standards Authority (ASA); The Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP)
When: 18 July 2017
Law stated as at: 31 July 2017
The ASA has published its report, Depictions, Perceptions and harm, looking into gender stereotyping in ads. This report, which was drawn up with the assistance of research firm GfK and takes into account submissions and evidence from academics, interest groups, stakeholders and members of the public, was produced following a wide-reaching investigation into the potential harm caused by ads featuring gender stereotyping launched in spring of 2016.
The ASA’s project and the resulting report followed in the wake of the storm caused by the beach body ready Protein World ad in early 2015, which, to many people’s surprise, was not banned despite high-profile accusations of ‘body shaming’ (as we reported here and here). The ASA findings should also be understood squarely in the context of mounting legislative, political and public support for greater gender equality within UK society, along with a growing scepticism of traditional approaches to gender roles and characteristics.
The project identified six categories of gender stereotypes, the effects of which are considered by the ASA and CAP: body image, characteristics, objectification, roles, sexualisation, and mocking those who do not conform to stereotypes. On the basis of the submissions received and evidence gathered over the past year, the report sets out the following key findings:
- Evidence and input from stakeholders, academics and the public concluded that ads which reinforce gender stereotypes are part of a complex cultural and societal network of causes which often serve to perpetuate and reinforce inequality and limit potential. The research identified, particularly, that there is a risk for ads containing gender stereotypes to be harmful to children.
- The evidence points to general public support for the ASA’s record of cracking down on ads which “objectify or inappropriately sexualise women and girls, and ads that suggest it is acceptable for young women to be unhealthily thin“.
- The ASA and CAP will not seek to ban depictions of gender stereotypes outright (the report acknowledges, for example, that it would be inappropriate and unrealistic to prevent all ads from depicting any woman cleaning). However, as certain gender stereotypes and specific creative treatments can be linked to harmful outcomes for adults and children, new regulatory standards for advertisers should be drawn up to provide guidance for advertisers. Examples of potentially harmful treatments include ads suggesting an activity is inappropriate for a girl because it is stereotypically associated with boys (or vice versa), ads with men trying and failing to get to grips with housework or basic parental duties, or ads showing family members creating mess while a woman is given sole responsibility for clearing up.
- The ASA has typically ruled that depictions of stereotypical gender roles, or ads that mock people for not conforming to stereotype, are unlikely to cause harm, serious or widespread offence, or be socially irresponsible. It appears this approach to enforcement against ads relating to body image, sexualisation and objectification is set to continue relatively un-changed. However, the ASA and CAP recognise that a tougher approach is needed to tackle ads which, through their content or context, could cause harm. This, the ASA makes clear, includes ads that mock people for not conforming to expected gender stereotypes.
Why this matters:
CAP Code rules contain prohibitions on ads that cause harm and serious or widespread offence, particularly on the grounds of gender (see rule 4.1). Ads must also be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and society (rule 1.3). However, UK advertising rules do not address gender stereotyping head on. In contrast, of the 28 countries surveyed in the report, 24 have specific regulations or laws which restrict gender stereotyping in ads.
In response to the report, CAP will develop new regulatory standards to address potentially harmful treatments of gender stereotyping. The new standards will help advertisers avoid unacceptable depictions of stereotypes which reinforce negative assumptions, particularly those that serve to limit the potential of groups and individuals. Drawing on the submissions and evidence collated, CAP will also establish rules for ads that objectify or inappropriately sexualise women, and ads which suggest it is fine to be unhealthily thin. There will be an update on the progress of these new rules towards the end of 2017.
Commenting on its approach to enforcement, the ASA notes the cumulative effect of certain ads – the ability for groups of ads to create an overall impression that reinforces negative gender stereotypes. Mirroring the approach to restricting ads for alcohol, therefore, the ASA is expected to identify and ban specific creative treatments which may result in a cumulative negative effect, rather than imposing any blanket ban on ads containing gender stereotypes or banning ads which are relatively unproblematic when viewed in isolation.