ASA ruling on gender stereotyping – Volkswagen

Published on 07 November 2019

When does an ad perpetuate harmful stereotypes?

The key takeaway

Advertisers must not include gender stereotypes which could be considered likely to cause harm in their ads.  Avoid giving the impression that roles and characteristics are exclusively associated with one gender.

The background

Earlier this year, following a review of gender stereotyping in advertising, the ASA introduced a new rule banning the depiction of men and women engaged in gender-stereotypical activities. This new rule in the CAP and BCAP Codes, which came into force on 14 June 2019, states that ads “must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence”.

The ad

A television ad for the Volkswagen electric eGolf car depicted a variety of scenes including a man and woman camping on the side of a sheer cliff face, male astronauts working in space, a male para-athlete doing a long jump and a woman sitting on a bench accompanied by a pram. The final scene of the ad depicts a Volkswagen eGolf passing quietly by the woman sitting on the bench, accompanied by the words “when we learn to adapt we can achieve anything”.

The response

The ad received three complaints from people who believed that the ad perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes by showing men taking part in adventurous activities in contrast to a woman involved in a care-giving role, and therefore was in breach of the BCAP Code.

Volkswagen stated that the ad was not sexist and said that including the scene of the woman with the pram was intended to show that caring for a new-born baby was a life-changing experience about adaptation, regardless of the gender of the parent portrayed. Volkswagen also claimed that the characters depicted in the ad were not shown taking part in activities that were stereotypical to one gender. For example, the woman camping on the cliff face was sleeping and one of the astronauts was eating an apple. Volkswagen considered that it was the environments that the characters found themselves in that were adventurous rather than the activities that they were taking part in.

The decision

The ASA upheld the complaints and banned the ad.

It considered that the juxtaposition of men in extraordinary environments and carrying out adventurous activities with depictions of women in passive and care-giving roles “directly contrasted stereotypical male and female roles and characteristics in a manner that gave the impression that they were exclusively associated with one gender”. The ASA believed that the way in which gender stereotypes were presented was likely to cause harm and therefore constituted a breach of the BCAP Code.

Why is this important?

This decision reminds advertisers to take particular care when creating ads which depict men and women in different situations, and that it will not hesitate to ban an ad which crosses its line on gender stereotyping.

Any practical tips?

Ask the creative teams to send you (as early as possible!) the storyboards for all ads which might contain any form of gender stereotyping. Catching a potential problem early – by screening the proposed ad through the (more critical) eyes of the ASA – may save it from being banned under the strict new rules.

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