Gender stereotyping and the use of one gender in an ad

Published on 02 June 2020

ASA ruling against PC Specialist

The question

Can the use of only one gender in an ad breach the rules on gender stereotyping?

The key takeaway

According to ASA guidance, ads are not prohibited from featuring only one gender. However, an ad should not strongly imply that only one gender can excel in the specialisms and roles depicted in the ad. 

The ad

A TV ad for PCSpecialist, seen on 17 September 2019, featured three men performing different activities on computers, including producing music and coding. The male voice-over stated, “It’s the beginning of the end. The end of following. It’s the start of freedom, individuality, choice. It’s an uprising. An insurgence. For the players, the gamers, the ‘I’ll sleep laters’, the creators, the editors, the music makers. The techies, the coders, the illustrators. Bespoke, customised, like no other. From the specialists for the specialists. PCSpecialist. “

The complaint

The complainants believed that the ad perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes by depicting men in roles that were stereotypically male and implying that it was only men who were interested in technology and computers. They challenged whether the ad breached the BCAP Code. 

The response

PCSpecialist explained that their customer base was 87.5% male, aged between 15 and 35 years. Their product, branding and service had been developed for and aimed at that target audience and the characters in the ad therefore represented a cross-section of the PCSpecialist core customer base. PC Specialist also said it didn’t believe the characters in the ad “represented negative stereotypes.” They stressed there was no comparison between men and women in the ad and it did not imply that women were not interested in computers, and that the ad did not juxtapose men using computers with women not using computers, nor did the ad explicitly state that women did not use computers or that the service was unsuitable for them. 

The decision

The ASA highlighted the ad began with a PC exploding and went on to state “freedom, individuality and choice” before referencing a number of specialist and creative roles in quick succession, encompassing leisure pursuits and professional positions, not just limited to information technology, but in the creative and artistic industries and entertainment, namely: players/gamers, creators, editors, music makers, techies, coders and illustrators. 

The ASA considered that the voice-over and fast-paced series of scenes in the ad conveyed a sense of excitement and opportunity and implied that those depicted in the ad were innovative, highly skilled and achieving excellence in the roles and careers mentioned and that those watching should aspire to excel in them too. However, the ad repeatedly cut to images of only men, who were both prominent and central to the ad’s message of opportunity and excellence across multiple desirable career paths. The ASA therefore considered that the ad implied that excellence in those roles and fields would be seen as the preserve of men. Because of that, the ASA considered that the ad went further than just featuring a cross-section of the advertiser’s core customer base and implied that only men could excel in those roles. 

The ASA upheld the complaints on the basis that the ad breached BCAP Code rule 4.14, which says “Advertisements must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence”

Why is this important?

While ASA guidance makes it clear that an ad can feature only one gender, they cannot strongly imply that only one gender can excel in the specialisms and roles depicted in the ad. The latter would present gender stereotypes in a way that is likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence, and therefore breach the BCAP Code.

Any practical tips?

Gender stereotypical characteristics include occupations or positions as well as attributes or behaviours usually associated with a specific gender. Ads should take care to avoid suggesting that stereotypical roles or characteristics are always uniquely associated with one gender and are the only options available to one gender; or were never carried out or displayed by another gender. One (simple) practical tip is to put the brakes on whenever you see a storyboard for an ad and try and view it through the (very) gender-aware spectacles now being worn by the ASA.

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