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ASA publishes report on gender stereotyping in advertising

Published on 25 September 2017

How far do advertisers need to go in ensuring that ads avoid harmful gender stereotypes?

The background

Following public backlash to the now infamous Protein World “Beach Body Ready” advertising campaign, in 2016 the ASA launched a project to consider whether current advertising regulation does enough to address the potential for harm and offence caused by gender stereotyping in ads.  This project formed the foundation of the “Depictions, Perceptions and Harm” Report published in July 2017.

The development

The Report found that gender stereotypes have the potential to cause harm by inviting assumptions that might negatively restrict how people see themselves and others.  Such assumptions are ultimately detrimental not only to individuals, but more widely to society and the economy.  Though advertising is only one of many factors that contribute to the proliferation of gender stereotypes, the ASA and CAP consider that the Report provides a case for tougher regulation to tackle the use of potentially harmful gender stereotypes in ads.

The six categories of gender stereotypes identified within the Report include:

  • roles – occupations or positions usually associated with a specific gender

  • characteristics – attributes or behaviours associated with a specific gender

  • mocking people for not conforming – making fun of someone for behaving or looking in a non-stereotypical way

  • sexualisation – portraying individuals in a sexualised manner

  • objectification – depicting someone in a way that focusses on their body parts

  • body image – depicting an unhealthy body image.

Rest assured that the ASA does not expect the removal of any kind of depiction of men and women in traditional gender roles – for instance, it would be unrealistic to censor ads depicting a woman cleaning or a man doing DIY.  The evidence suggests, however, that the following might be classed as problematic:

  • ads depicting families creating mess while a woman has sole responsibility for cleaning it

  • ads suggesting an activity is inappropriate for one gender because it is stereotypically associated with the other

  • ads featuring men trying and failing to undertake simple parental or household tasks.

Why is this important?

Currently, the CAP Code catches ads that are likely to cause “serious or widespread offence”, and the ASA has in the past ruled against ads which sexualise women or depict an unhealthy body image.  However, there is no direct rule preventing gender stereotyping within the UK Advertising Codes.  Based on the strength of evidence in this Report, CAP is in the process of developing new standards for ads that feature stereotypical gender roles or characteristics. 

Campaigns promoting stereotypes can already face public backlash, but in future, an upheld complaint could magnify the public relations damage by validating what might otherwise be written off as a few anonymous voices on Twitter. 

Any practical tips?

The ASA plans to report publicly on CAP's new standards before the end of 2017.  This interim period presents a risk, in that the ASA has signalled heightened sensitivity but not yet provided its guidance.  Advertisers should tread carefully, and keep an eye out for the new guidance towards the end of the year.