Banning gender stereotypes from ads could cause more harm than good
The ASA have introduced a new code that will help ban ads that are believed to depict harmful gender stereotypes.
The code itself states that advertising must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or widespread offence. The cause makes sense. Advertising is proven to have a powerful influence on people (that’s why businesses invest in it), and with power comes responsibility.
So while the reasoning for this is obvious (especially so when advertising has the potential to form mass stereotypes that can form unequal gender outcomes), the actual implementation of the code could be more problematic and prone to subjectivity, as opposed to practicality.
The ASA’s website provides a number of example scenarios that provide guidance to help advertisers stick to the code – for example, an ad that depicts a man with his feet up and family members creating mess around a home while a woman is solely responsible for cleaning up the mess. The thing is, these guidance scenarios are all pretty obvious and any advertiser that knows what it’s doing will quickly understand the risk of inciting the wrong reaction long before it ever reaches the outside world.
That this is another example of regulation for regulation’s sake, and shouldn’t be needed for 99.9 per cent of what the industry delivers. In effect this risks being a touch of an overstep by the watchdog and actually undermines one of the most important elements of successful advertising – creating work that resonates with country’s culture and heart beat…if ads with significant gender stereotypes are a significant issue that we know will do more damage than good then they won’t be made, or the advertiser will soon see what people think.
The most worrying side of this policy is actually in its interpretation and how it could open a number of well thought out, well intended, pieces of work to criticism and objection from a tiny minority of the population. And when that starts to happen, the ability of advertising to actually change a business’ fortunes could become compromised – simply by the fact that it has been reduced to a level of blandness and correctness that it creates no emotional reaction or engagement at all.
It’s easily forgotten that advertising, in the round, is a positive growth engine for our economy. It works. And done well, it connects people with products and services. In today’s complex and digital advertising landscape it’s vital that advertising (especially mainstream advertising on the large format channels, like TV and outdoor) it should given the free rein to be exciting, engaging and, from time-to-time, ultimately challenging.
Of course it needs regulation, and for the most part, the balance is struck right. But when you set this type of thinking alongside the recent decision to remove ‘junk food’ advertising from the TFL portfolio (yes, that’s a ban for all high fat salt and sugar products – not just fast food restaurants), we can see how excessive regulation could quickly restrict the ability of advertising to grow our economy. We should be wary of going too far.