Who: The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and People Per Hour (PPH)
Where: United Kingdom
When: 8 January 2020
Law stated as at: 4 February 2020
The ASA received 19 complaints about a poster ad campaign by People Per Hour launched on the London Underground in November 2019. The posters featured an image of a woman, with the caption “You do the girl boss thing. We’ll do the SEO thing.” The complainants said that the ad “perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes” by portraying women running businesses in a patronising manner and implying that women lack skill in using technology.
The ASA upheld the complaints and agreed that the ad breached the Code by “reinforcing harmful gender stereotypes“, citing the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing (CAP Code) which states that “advertisements must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence“, and the joint CAP and the UK Code of Broadcast Advertising (BCAP) guidance on depicting gender stereotypes likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence. The latter states that gender-stereotypical roles include jobs or positions typically associated with a specific gender, while gender-stereotypical characteristics include attributes or behaviours often associated with a specific gender.
In relation to the People Per Hour ad, the ASA found that the use of the term “girl boss” suggested that a person’s gender was relevant to their job performance; that a female boss might be out of the ordinary; and used a well-established stereotype that men were more suited to senior business positions than women. Further, use of the word “girl” for an adult woman gave the impression that a female “boss” was “a novelty, playing at their role and somehow less serious than a man in the same position“. While the ASA acknowledged People Per Hour’s argument that “girl boss” was a reference to a book and TV show, they argued that many people seeing the ad would be unfamiliar with the reference.
In relation to search engine optimization (SEO), the ASA added that women being unskilled at using technology was a well-established stereotype. They argued that the link between the two sentences on the ad would suggest to audiences that “female “bosses” in particular needed outside help with IT matters.”
People Per Hour acknowledged that the advert may unintentionally “come across as sexist and demeaning to women”. They removed the word “girl” from the ad and issued a public apology.
Why this matters:
This example highlights that businesses need to think carefully before producing ads that feature or compare male and female stereotypical roles or characteristics, considering particularly the way that these may be interpreted by different audiences. An unwise decision could not only bring a business into contact with the ASA, but also damage its reputation and goodwill among its clients and customers and give rise to harmful PR.
If in doubt, consult the joint CAP and BCAP guidance on depicting gender stereotypes likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence.