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ASA ruling on gender stereotyping Philadelphia

Published on 07 November 2019

When does an advertisement perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes? Will humour save you?

The key takeaway

Advertisers must not include gender stereotypes which could be considered likely to cause harm in their ads.

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 Advertising Codes, which came into force on 14 June 2019, states that advertisements “must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence”.

The ad

The advertisement is a television ad for Philadelphia cheese. This depicts two new fathers, accompanied by their respective babies, eating lunch at a restaurant where there is food being circulated on a conveyor belt. They become distracted whilst talking, and find that their babies have accidentally been carried away by the conveyor belt, to which one of them says “Let’s not tell mum”.

The response

The ad received 128 complaints by complainants who stated that the ad “perpetuated a harmful stereotype by suggesting that men were incapable of caring for children and would place them at risk as a result of their incompetence”. In response, Mondelez (the company which produces Philadelphia) said that it was “stuck in a no-win situation”, as it had specifically chosen two fathers to feature in the ad to avoid the stereotype that mothers should handle childcare responsibilities. It argued that it had aimed to show a positive image of men as taking on an active role in childcare in modern society. 

Clearcast considered that the focus of the ad was the experience of two new parents who were not used to dealing with children rather than new fathers who were unable to look after their children properly as a result of their gender. Similarly, ITV, who had shown the ad, stated that it did not believe that the ad “constituted a stereotypical incompetence”.

The decision

The ASA upheld the complaints and banned the ad.

The ASA recognised that the intention of the ad was to be humorous. It noted that Mondelez had purposefully chosen two fathers to avoid the stereotype of new mothers with childcare responsibilities (and because men were a growing market for Philadelphia), and had not purposefully made the men featured look incompetent. However, it found that overall, the ad relied on the stereotype that men were not able to care for children as well as women and implied that the fathers had failed to properly look after their children because of their gender. It was also found the humorous nature of the ad did not detract from the harmful stereotype and in fact derived from it.

Why is this important?

This decision provides evidence of the ASA’s strict interpretation of its new rules on gender stereotyping in ads and demonstrates that it is willing to find that harmful stereotypes are perpetuated even in what may seem to be light-hearted and humorous scenarios.

Any practical tips?

Advertisers should take care to ensure that their ads do not perpetuate what could be considered to be harmful gender stereotypes, or suggest that stereotypical roles or characteristics are always associated with one gender. Above all, forget the idea that humour will save you.  It’s the focus of the ad which is key – see, for example, the recent Buxton ruling on gender stereotyping where the focus on drive and talent overcame the suggestion of portraying men and women in stereotypical ways.