We often hear that there are some things just too big to change. That it’s “just the way things are” and we’ll all just have to live with it – but this is the laziest excuse. Change doesn’t always happen organically, but progress is possible, if we want it and someone is willing to work for it.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has announced that it will ban adverts that feature “gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence” and will come into use from June 2019. This particular set of rules is less about being Beach Body Ready and more about Betty Draper storylines that cast women as homemakers and men as breadwinners.
Guidance from the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) has clarified that this doesn’t necessarily mean all gender stereotypes, but only those that are “harmful” or “problematic”. This could mean, for example, adverts showing a man refusing to do domestic chores while his wife cleans up around him. Or women making a mess of putting up a shelf while a man burns the dinner and drops the baby.
For the PC-gone-mad brigade, who might think this is all a fuss over nothing, the advertising watchdogs have done their homework, conducting a proper investigation into this issue. They have concluded that there is a link between problematic gender stereotypes in advertising and the restriction of “choices, aspirations and opportunities” of viewers, going further to say that this could result in “unequal gender outcomes”. In other words, adverts that resort to tired 1950s-style gender narratives, whether for children or adults, do have a tangible effect in the real world.
Similar discussions have been had in relation to dieting and weight-loss advertising.
Ella Smillie, spokesperson for CAP, says: “The evidence we published last year showed that harmful gender stereotypes in ads contribute to how people see themselves and their role in society. They can hold some people back from fulfilling their potential, or from aspiring to certain jobs and industries, bringing costs for individuals and the economy.”
It’s up for debate how much effect there will be on the next generations of consumers, who have been neglecting traditional television for streaming and YouTube, but the rules do apply to both broadcast and non-broadcast, which includes social media and online.
We often hear that there are some things just too big to change. That it’s ‘just the way things are’ and we’ll all just have to live with it – but this is the laziest excuse
Adverts must also not highlight stereotypical personality differences between boys and girls – so no more scenes of girls playing with dolls while boys build a train set. Boys can no longer be wooed by the promise of sporting prowess and becoming a banker, while girls are charmed by a husband, kids and great hair. Meanwhile, when men are portrayed performing stereotypically “female” chores, the depiction should not belittle or poke fun at him.
But it’s all about context. Both boys and girls could be shown enjoying anything, from cricket to crocheting. It’s about not imposing divisions. The rules don’t mean we’ll never see a woman scrubbing the kitchen floor again, it’s just that she won’t be doing it while her husband uses her as a footstool as he watches the football. It’s essentially asking brands to have a little more respect for their audience and understand that interests, characteristics and abilities are not defined by gender. Adverts can still be aspirational – they will probably still use conventionally attractive, mostly white people living wonderful lives that revolve around their vacuum cleaner or hairspray or building society – but viewers will no longer be pigeonholed by gender.
And Sam Smethers, Fawcett Society chief executive, believes that the move will have a meaningful impact: "It is time for us to wake up to the harm that gender norms and stereotypes can do: limiting girls' horizons and career choices, objectifying women and causing them to self-harm; legitimising violence and aggression in boys and inhibiting dads' caring roles."
Another rule states that if a person depicted does not match stereotypical body ideals for their gender, it should not be linked to their potential for success, either romantically or socially. New mothers are highlighted as an audience vulnerable to gender stereotyping in adverts and the updated rules ask that it is not implied that they should care more about their home and appearance than their wellbeing.
Some of it will sound like stating the obvious, but it seems like there will always be a new Bic For Her marketing strategy to demonstrate that, actually, these things do need to be said. Some are major scandals, others are more of an eyeroll, like the M&S Christmas window display recently, but in laying out clear guidelines we might manage to steer clear of further promotional facepalms.
The idea that we can’t fix lazy advertising is like when people in the film and television industry complain that it is difficult to achieve better statistics on diversity or gender. It’s a cop-out. After the trailer for Wreck It Ralph 2 came out, Disney was (rightly) criticised for having lightened Princess Tiana’s skin and slimmed down her nose and lips. Instead of issuing a half-hearted excuse or ignoring the critics, Disney listened and actually did something, reanimating the character with more authentic black features. It’s proof that just because something has been signed off and put out into the world does not mean it is set in stone. There is always room for improvement, if there is also willing.
It might mean that advertising executives have to try a bit harder, think outside of a few boxes and stop recycling old ideas, but they are creatives; they’re up to the challenge. Advertising might have boomed in the 1950s, but it doesn’t need to stay there.