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CAP issues new rule and guidance on gender stereotyping

Published on 08 April 2019

How can ads avoid falling foul of the new gender stereotyping rule?

The background

There were a number of ads in 2017 that received backlash from the public due to gender stereotyping, such as the GAP ad that dressed a young boy as a “scholar” in contrast to a young girl dressed as a “social butterfly”, and the KFC ad which mocked two men’s emotional anxiety.  Concerns over the portrayal of gender stereotypes led to an ASA review and consultation in 2018.  This has resulted in a recently released new rule with accompanying guidance to combat the issue.

The new rule, which will come into force on 14 June 2019, is accompanied by guidance on how to help ads steer clear of negative gender stereotyping.  Currently, the CAP Code allows the ASA to intervene if an ad causes “serious or widespread offence”.  The new rule (4.9 of the CAP Code and 4.14 of the BCAP Code) significantly changes this, stating that “marketing communications must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence”.

The ASA has stated that humour and banter will not be considered as mitigating factors in instances where there is gender stereotyping and added that when contemplating complaints, it will take into account:

  • the ads likely impact as a whole and in context
  • the view of the group of people that have been stereotyped
  • the use of other stereotypes, such as race, age and disability, in the ad.

The guidance

The guidance sets out five scenarios, including descriptive examples, where the ASA may come to the conclusion that harm has been caused.

1.  Scenarios featuring gender-stereotypical roles and characteristics

The guidance states that roles include “occupations or positions usually associated with a specific gender”, whilst characteristics include “attributes or behaviours usually associated with a specific gender”.  It clarifies that it is possible to portray individuals in their gender stereotypical roles.  However, ads should avoid positing that the gender’s role and characteristics depicted:

  • are solely associated with one gender
  • limit the choice of behaviour or occupation of that gender
  • cannot ever be undertaken by the other gender.

    Example ads which may fall foul of the new rule include those which:

  • starkly contrast male and female stereotypical roles
  • highlight any gender not succeeding in a task solely due to their gender, or
  • portray that a woman’s application of make up is more important than other parts of their life.

2.  Scenarios featuring pressure to conform to an idealised gender-stereotypical body shape or physical features

The guidance states that ads are allowed to contain attractive, successful and healthy people.  However, ads should not intimate that a person’s mental wellbeing and happiness is dependent on conforming to the idealised gender-stereotypical body shape or physical features. 

Further, ads which depict people as unsuccessful or unattractive should not insinuate that the sole reason is because they have not conformed.  Importantly for weight loss products and services, the guidance clarifies that ‘responsible’ ads will still be permitted. 

3.  Scenarios aimed at or featuring children

The guidance confirms that ads can be clearly directed at children of a specific gender, even when the activity or product is typically associated with that child’s gender.  But they should be careful to avoid portraying what they seek to promote as unambiguously applicable to only one gender.  In addition, ads should not directly contrast a boy’s stereotypical characteristics to a girl’s characteristics.

4.  Scenarios aimed at or featuring potentially vulnerable groups

The guidance advises that ads should show understanding to the mental and physical health of individuals in vulnerable groups who may feel pressure to adapt to certain gender stereotypes. 

Ads targeted at new mums implying the importance of attractiveness and being a good housewife over their emotional health and ads directed at teenagers suggesting that a gender-stereotypical body or characteristic is essential to a successful social or love life are both examples of ads that may be deemed likely to harm potentially vulnerable groups. 

5.  Scenarios featuring people who don’t conform to a gender stereotype

The guidance warns that ads, which jeer those who do not fit to gender stereotypes, even when used with humour, will be unacceptable under the new rule.  One of the examples given is that of a man mocked for undertaking “female” roles. 

Why is this important?

The law currently means that the ASA can only intervene for issues that are likely to cause serious harm or widespread offence, which is a much higher threshold than simply “likely to cause harm”.  With the clamour of social media and reporting of controversial ads, companies are facing increasing public scrutiny and negative publicity if they breach these rules.  It’s more important than ever for companies to be extra careful about how they portray gender. 

Any practical tips?

Don’t make light of gender issues, as humour won’t save you!  But above all, remember that gender issues are now subject to a lower ASA threshold.  Anyone involved in the production of an ad of this type should revisit the guidance as a matter of course.  Failing to do so could lead to an embarrassing, and expensive, pulling of a media campaign.