Brands face crackdown on gender stereotypes in advertising

New rules around gender stereotyping are set to be introduced after a report by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) found advertising affects people’s expectations of how others should “look or behave” according to their gender.

gender stereotypes

Brands are facing a crackdown on gender stereotyping in advertising as the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) unveils plans to introduce new ad rules after admitting “tougher” guidelines are needed to protect children from “restrictive” gender norms.

The industry body has released a report today (18 July), which explores whether current regulation is doing enough to address the potential for harm arising from gender stereotypes in ads.

The review examined gender stereotyping across several areas, including body image, objectification, sexualisation and gender characteristics and roles. The ASA also conducted an independent research study in partnership with GfK to explore the public’s attitudes towards gender stereotyping in ads.

It shows a tougher line is needed on ads that feature stereotypical gender roles or characteristics that could potentially cause harm, including ads that mock people for not conforming to gender stereotypes.

Speaking to Marketing Week, lead report author Ella Smillie says there are multiple reasons the ASA undertook the research – including growing societal and political conversations around gender.

While we are broadly getting it right, there is more we can do in certain areas, especially people being mocked for not confirming to gender roles.

Ella Smillie, ASA

The furore around Protein World’s ‘Beach Body Ready’ ad in 2015, which showed a woman in a bright yellow bikini and led to 378 complaints for being “socially irresponsible”, also shone a light on the topic and led the ASA to conclude it needed to take a “strong evidence-based position” when it comes to the portrayal of gender in ads.

“The project gave us the opportunity to take a step back and look at all the evidence. While we are broadly getting it right, there is more we can do in certain areas, especially when it comes to people being mocked for not confirming to gender roles,” she says.

While Smillie says there are multiple factors that influence society’s view on gender roles, she admits advertising can affect people’s expectations of how others should “look or behave” according to their gender.

“[The research] demonstrates that gender inequality is an issue for society at large, and that stereotyping can play a role reinforcing this. Advertising is not the only influence but does play a role, and it’s right that we identify where there’s a potential for harm.”

Changes to advertising

In response to the evidence, the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) will develop new standards on ads that feature stereotypical gender roles or characteristics. The ASA will then administer and enforce those standards.

CAP will also use the evidence in the report to clarify standards that reflect the ASA’s existing position on ads that objectify or inappropriately sexualise women and girls. It expects to update the industry on its progress by the end of this year, but it is currently unclear when the new rules will come into force.

The report emphasises that the new standards will not ban all forms of gender stereotypes, as they can be a “useful way to tell a story”. For example, ads depicting a woman cleaning or a man doing DIY tasks probably won’t be banned. But the following types of depictions are likely to be problematic:

  • An ad which depicts family members creating a mess while a woman has sole responsibility for cleaning it up.
  • An ad that suggests a specific activity is inappropriate for boys because it is stereotypically associated with girls, or vice-versa.
  • An ad that features a man trying and failing to undertake simple parental or household tasks.

There are also further plans to look at other gender stereotypes, specifically how it intersects with race and the LGBT+ community. But it is unclear if the ASA will be conducting research of a similar scale into the matter.

READ MORE: The dangers of images that reinforce stereotypes

The response from the industry has been largely positive, but the Advertising Association’s director of communications Ian Barber says it will be a challenge to enforce “consistency and certainty for brands and agencies, in what is a subjective debate.”

Meanwhile, ISBA’s director general Phil Smith says: “ISBA will be working with members to ensure that as responsible advertisers they continue to reflect the changing values and views of consumers. We hope and expect the standards that CAP brings forward are clear and consistent and take into account the significant element of subjectivity in this area.”

In response to these concerns, the ASA’s Smillie claims it is in a good place to judge ads “on a case by case basis”. She adds that the rules won’t change “overnight” and will reflect a general change happening within the industry already.

The fight to end gender stereotyping in advertising has previously been addressed by advertisers themselves, with Unilever creating the ‘Unstereotype Alliance’ last month in collaboration with UN Women, as well as brands including Mars, Diageo and Alibaba.

“We see those initiatives as complementary to what we are doing. It demonstrates that it’s a live topic that has seen lots of progress by different parts of the industry,” Smillie concludes.