Tackling gender stereotypes: Are new ad rules the answer?

The new rules face issues over how to rule on a subjective matter and whether it’s the campaigns themselves, or the teams behind them, that are really in need of a shake-up.

stereotyping ads

You only have to go back a few years to see what marketing teams once thought made good advertising. Women falling at the feet of attractive men or slaving away in the kitchen were commonplace, while men were all too often portrayed as hapless morons literally unable to figure out how to work a washing machine.

Progress has been made since then. Lynx has dumped its ‘Lynx Effect’ ads in favour of showing a more progressive brand purpose. And brands such as Always have taken up the mantle of female empowerment with the aim of turning the phrase ‘Like a Girl’ into a positive expression rather than an insult.

There have also been broader company and industry-wide attempts to deal with stereotyping. Unilever launched its global ‘Unstereotype’ initiative last year with the aim of getting all its brands to think about how they portray people, especially women, in their advertising and avoid tired stereotypes.

It took that one step further last month, setting up an ‘Unstereotype Alliance’ and joining forces with 24 companies, including UN Women, Twitter, Mars, Procter & Gamble, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Diageo, to tackle the issue at an industry level.

Unilever’s chief marketing and communications officer Keith Weed is “clear” that there is a business, and not just a societal case for this move. He claims progressive advertising delivers 25% better branded impact and says Unilever itself has seen “encouraging results”.

Yet more work still needs to be done. Recent research by The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media and J.Walter Thompson shows that the representation of women in advertising hasn’t improved in a decade. The study reveals that men still get four times as much screen time as women and are more often portrayed as leaders.

The UK’s ad regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority, has now decided that despite the progress, a “tougher line” is needed to tackle the problem. While there are many brands showing the way forward in this issue, others are not.

The decision to take action was prompted, in part, by Protein World’s ‘Beach Body Ready’ ad in 2015, which showed a woman in a bright yellow bikini and saw 378 people complain that it was “socially irresponsible”. The ad was banned, but not for this reason, with the ASA at the time saying it was “unlikely to cause widespread offence” (it was banned for misleading health claims).

As part of its investigation into the issue, the ASA undertook research with GfK, which was published this week. And the lead report author, Ella Smillie, says the outcome was clear: More needs to be done to tackle ads that feature stereotypical gender roles or characteristics that could potentially cause harm, including ads that mock people for not conforming to gender stereotypes.

“[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,” she explains.

The decision on what those rules should look like will fall to the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP), which writes the ad codes. The new standards will come into force next year.

Creating rules around a ‘subjective’ issue


The industry has reacted positively to news of the crackdown, with many brands saying it fits with what they are already doing to tackle the issue. P&G believes anything that tackles a societal issue and helps the industry move towards being free from gender bias “has to be a good thing”, pointing to its ‘How Fair is Home’ campaign for washing up liquid brand Fairy.

That campaign launched last year and challenged British households to be fairer in the division of household tasks at home. The campaign was inspired by its own research, showing that 94% of Brits believe men and women should share the burden of chores equally, yet just 29% of households split the housework 50/50 in the UK.

“As we look at it, it’s just another good step in the right direction. Societal attitudes are changing, but there’s always more to do,” says Aimee Goldsmith, head of communications at P&G Northern Europe.

Industry bodies ISBA, the Advertising Association and the IPA all agreed. However, there is a concern around enforcement of the new standards, with ISBA and the AA claiming it will be a challenge to ensure consistency among brands and agencies “in what is a subjective debate”.

We only need to look at our screens, open our newspapers and look at our billboards to know that there is a long way to go on this.

Michele Oliver, Mars

Once the new rules come into place, the main obstacle for the industry will be to establish where the line is and when a campaign has crossed that line – and that the rules are applied meaningfully.

“It’s not clear whether some of the most complained about ads over recent years would be decided differently with new rules in place. The ASA ruled that Protein World’s ‘Beach Body Ready’ ad was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offence – it’s far from clear that rules to combat gender stereotyping would pave the way for a different decision,” says Dan Smith, head of advertising law at Gowling WLG.

“Would the ASA rule differently on Asda’s ‘Behind every Christmas there’s mum’ ad, with a ‘mum’ juggling Christmas preparations? Or would it still consider that the ad reflected the reality of Christmas for a significant number of Asda customers? We wait to see the detail of new rules and how they will be interpreted by the ASA.”

Others seem to have taken offence at the ASA’s decision to regulate at all – a sentiment hat has been echoed on social media.

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.

The7stars’s CEO Jenny Bigham, who also contributed to the report, believes the guidelines “are pretty clear”, and won’t ban advertisers from using stereotypes. And even if it doesn’t lead to a huge rise in ads being banned, it should mean marketers and agencies are putting more thought into how they represent people in their campaigns.

“It’s much more about the potential harm to some at risk groups in certain images, such as men being mocked for not being manly enough. I think it’s pretty clear where the ASA want it to start and stop,” she says.

Changing agency culture

There is also the question over how effective an update to regulations will be when there is still a diversity problem in both marketing and agencies. In the UK, just 12% of creative directors are female, according to Creative Equals while the IPA’s 2015 survey into gender found women hold just 32.2% of the most senior positions despite a 50/50 split across the industry as a whole.

Casual stereotyping won’t disappear until the industry as a whole has a more diverse workforce, who can call out dodgy ads before they see the light of day. This is also needed to tackle the ASA’s next focus, which is how people of ethnic minorities and the LGBT+ community are represented on screen.

“We only need to look at our screens, open our newspapers and look at our billboards to know that there is a long way to go on this. When the big brands combined with industry bodies like the ASA and our creative agencies pull together, I know that we can accelerate the pace of change,” says Michele Oliver, VP marketing for Mars Chocolate UK.

Charlie Carpenter, managing director at market intelligence firm Creativebrief, agrees that the pace of change has been “glacial” and that there has been a lot of talk “but not a lot of action”. Instead, the industry should now move into an “activist phase”. He believes it will be up to brands to hold their agencies to account when it comes to how people are featured in their ads.

He concludes: “This should not be done in some sort of brutal way, but in a collaborative manner. Brands need to set out to their agency partners how important diversity is to them and hold them to account.”



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