The UK’s advertising supervisor, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), has banned advertisements containing “harmful gender stereotypes” that cause serious or widespread offence. Advertisements like those showing women unable to park or men unable to change diapers are included in this ban. In addition to this, advertisments depicting negative stereotypes, hate speech, and “harmful discriminatory behaviour” targetted at homosexuality is also considered an offence, although there is no mention of heteronormative depictions.
After carrying out research into gender stereotyping, the organisation, responsible for administering UK advertising codes, found that such representation hinders people’s overall potential. The review also showed that “harmful stereotypes restrict the choices, aspirations and opportunities of children, young people and adults and these stereotypes can be reinforced by some advertising, which plays a part in unequal gender outcomes.”
The nature of penalties to be given to offence committers has not been specified beyond the warning of tougher penalties. The ASA plans to carry out a 12-month review to consider whether the rule and guidance are meeting their objective to prevent harmful gender stereotypes and update the guidance to reflect ASA rulings, after which it will consider whether additional monitoring is required.
The ASA report asserted that gender stereotypes “are said to relate to body image, objectification, sexualisation and gender characteristics”, also acknowledging their presence in the form of “mocking people for not conforming to gender stereotypes.” Shattering gender roles and hidden sexism in advertising thus becomes an urgent need in the face of gender inequality, especially at young ages where stereotypical representations are portrayed as the norm.
Although organisations have dealt with gender equality at an individual level, for instance Gillette's #metoo ad campaign, the ASA ban is a fresh institutional change. Chief Executive of the ASA, Guy Parker condemned outdated portrayal in adverts and stated that harmful gender stereotyping in advertisements could “contribute to inequality in society and cost all of us”. The ban is a step towards addressing both covert and apparent forms of sexism in advertising.
However, it is crucial to note that the policy change comes from a group of men and does not ban all gender stereotypes in advertisements, only negative ones. The ASA ruling is a welcome change but until their definition of what does or does not classify as a “harmful gender stereotype” is tested, the rule cannot be evaluated. It is necessary to accompany these new guidelines with a proper framework of stereotype identification and a system of penalties. Is this truly the first step towards accurate representation of gender on media and marketing platforms? How effective will the new rules be in tackling gender stereotyping and inequality?