Gender stereotyping is a minefield. What one person thinks is offensive is perfectly fine to someone else.
The scope of this division came into focus last month, when the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) – the ad industry’s independent regulator – upheld complaints against two commercials that broke new rules about gender stereotypes.
One ad for Volkswagen featured scenes including two male astronauts floating in space and a male athlete with a prosthetic leg competing, followed by a woman sitting by a pram.
The other was for Philadelphia cream cheese. It showed two fathers being distracted by food and misplacing their infant children on a conveyor belt.
The ads were reprimanded under a new rule of the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) code that came into force on 14 June, which states that ads “must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence”.
The ASA received three complaints about VW and 128 about Philadelphia. In its published rulings, the regulator explained that it felt the juxtaposition in the VW ad – depicting the men in exciting roles and the woman in a domestic one – was likely to cause harm, while the Philadelphia commercial perpetuated a harmful stereotype about men being terrible at childcare.
Predictably, there was a backlash to both decisions. Pundits accused the ASA of overstepping the mark and being unable to take a joke, while two representative bodies for the ad industry – the IPA and the ISBA – called the rulings “surprising and concerning”.
So what is the ASA’s response to the reaction? Was it surprised?
Yes and no, says ASA chief executive Guy Parker.
“We expected a reaction, because the issue of gender stereotyping is quite divisive,” he tells City A.M.
“There was always going to be debate about our first rulings under the new rule. But I was surprised by the depth of the response. There was disbelief in some quarters that we could have come to these decisions.”
I ask Parker to expand on the justifications given in the rulings. In the case of VW, he explains that, while he felt that the car company’s ad agency wasn’t intentionally trying to use harmful stereotypes, the structure of the ad presented a problematic message.
“I think there was another message here that people could pick up, which is that extraordinary, adventurous, extreme athlete actions are for men, and passive care-giving is for women – that was an unfortunate juxtaposition.”
But with the Philadelphia ad, Parker argues that it intentionally relied on stereotypes to create humour.
“Clearly, a part of the message is that new dads are hopeless and can’t be trusted to look after the kids,” he says – a sentiment that breaks the new code.
Importantly, something that was ignored in the original coverage was the fact that a third ruling was published about Buxton bottled water, in which the ASA did not uphold the complaint. In fact, Parker reveals that the regulator has already investigated several ads which haven’t ended up banned.
“We are not seeking to ban everything with this rule – far from it. We have received hundreds of complaints about gender stereotyping since the rule came into force. That’s significant. These relate to dozens of ads, and we have resolved the vast majority of those complaints already, because we didn’t think these ads broke the rules.”
This is noteworthy, as some critics – including those in the comment pages of this paper – warned that the ASA might become trigger-happy and ban anything using stereotypes. In fact, the ASA is trying to be very careful and deliberate in its decisions.
Even so, Parker recognises that it will never convince everyone.
Another thing that critics seemed confused about was the structure of the ASA, suggesting that the bans were an example of government overreach.
But the ASA is not a state-backed regulator, it is part of the ad industry’s system of self-regulation. And, as Parker points out, the industry itself was involved in creating these rules.
“The advertising industry is a part of the ASA system. It wrote this rule, and it wrote the CAP guidance that we cited as being the justification in these three decisions,” he says.
“The ASA system is a really good example of enlightened self-interest: the advertising industry wants to move in step with the changing times, so that it can demonstrate to everyone – the public and politicians – that it’s keeping its house in order.”
As well as the backlash, the ASA also received support from parts of the industry. An article by Campaign Live asked six executives whether the ASA had gone too far – nearly all backed it.
“Five of the six supported the bans. I know that’s not a scientific piece of research, but it shows that the reaction isn’t all one way.”
But is it the ASA’s place to care about gender stereotyping at all?
Parker rebuffs this, pointing out that the ASA and CAP did extensive research into the effects of stereotypes in ads before implementing the new rule. He argues that stereotypes can lead people to believe that they have fewer life options than they really do, and this belief may be contributing to some of the gender inequality issues in the UK, such as the pay gap, the lack of female engineers and board executives, and the high rate of male suicide.
“Clearly, these are not caused by one ad, but gender stereotyping in ads can contribute to these real-world harms. We continue to think that the ASA and CAP should respond to that, and try to make sure that harmful stereotypes don’t appear in future ads.”
It seems that the backlash caught the ASA off-guard, and Parker explains that it will do more in the future to try to explain and justify its decisions, and provide as much clarity as it can to advertisers. But even then, there will always be those who disagree.
“We try to reflect society in the decisions that we make. But with an issue like gender stereotyping, that’s actually really difficult to do, because society does not think in one way,” says Parker. “Whichever way we go – whether we do or do not ban ads – we are going to be open to criticism from people who’d prefer that we’d taken the other path.”
Main image credit: Scott Barbour/Getty Images