ASA ruling on gender stereotyping – Buxton

Published on 07 November 2019

Can you still use gender stereotypical roles in your ads, even with the ASA’s new gender stereotyping rules in play?

The key takeaway

Notwithstanding the new gender stereotyping rules, you can portray men and women in gender stereotypical roles, provided your main focus is on other elements (such as drive and talent).

The ad

On 15 June 2019, a TV ad for Buxton bottled water, featured a female ballet dancer, a male drummer and a male rower. Each of the men and the one woman were featured practising their different skills as children and then as adults (for example, the rower was seen training on a stationary bike and rowing machine and then rowing on a river). This was then intermingled with the characters drinking Buxton water and images of water flowing through rock. 

A voice-over stated “Rock bottom. The start of the journey. There will be obstacles but it’s all about finding a way through, pushing upwards until finally reaching the top. Buxton. Here’s to the up and coming”. On screen text stated “Forced up through a mile of British rock. #HeresToTheUpAndComing”.

The complaint

Five complainants believed that the ad perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes by contrasting the men and the woman doing activities that they considered gender stereotypical - specifically, the only woman in the ad was a ballet dancer, which they considered was a role that was stereotypically associated with women. They challenged whether it breached the BCAP Code rule 4.12 (Harm and Offence). 

The response

Nestlé UK Ltd stated that the characters depicted were real people (not actors) nor was the ad stating that the roles portrayed were always uniquely associated with one gender or that these activities are only ever available to one gender. 

Clearcast agreed with Nestlé UK Ltd. Whilst the female character was shown to be a ballet dancer, she was featured as tough and athletic with her discipline requiring the same amount of physical exertion as the rower or cyclist. Clearcast did not consider that the ad was in breach of the regulations.

The decision

The ASA acknowledged that ballet was stereotypically seen as an activity for women and sports, such as rowing, were stereotypically associated with men. However, the viewers of the ad would be less focused on the specific disciplines of each character but more on their shared characteristics - equal levels of drive and talent in order to be high achievers in their respective fields. The ad reinforced this with multiple shots of the characters training or practising and the ASA considered that this illustrated hard work and perseverance. 

The ASA found that the ad did not perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes and concluded that it did not breach the BCAP Code rule 4.14.

Why is this important?

The ASA’s interpretation of gender stereotyping in advertisements for Buxton (and two other advertisements relating to Philadelphia cheese and Volkswagen cars) against the new rules and guidance go further than had been anticipated and has implications for a wide range of ads. Specifically, in relation to the Buxton ad, the implication of the ASA’s decision is that gender stereotypical roles may be acceptable where, for example, the focus is on the drive for success. 

Any practical tips?

If you are creating ads to be shown in the UK market, you need to think very carefully indeed about your narrative and castings. The good news is that it seems that the ASA’s application of its new rules means that ads may feature people undertaking gender-stereotypical roles. However, the key is to avoid suggesting that stereotypical roles or characteristics are always uniquely associated with one gender; the only options available to one gender; or never carried out or displayed by another gender - for example, portraying men as being bad at stereotypically “feminine” tasks, such as vacuuming, washing clothes or parenting. And if you do use gender-stereotypical roles, make sure your focus is on the right elements – as in the Buxton ad which brought out shared male and female levels of drive and talent. 

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