What do the recent ASA rulings on gender stereotyping mean for your ads?

14th August 2019

Elliot Lord, Copy Group Manager

It’s not often that new rules are added to the BCAP code, let alone something that can be described as progressive or even what some folks at the coal face of advertising compliance might call ‘exciting’, but that is exactly what happened when this new rule came into force on June 14th 2019.

“​Advertisements must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence”.

Alongside this new rule, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) issued Advertising Guidance so that advertisers, agencies and pre-clearance bodies can try to apply it with an even handed, just and fair approach.  Some might argue the reason for such a rule, believing the advertising landscape to have grown beyond the need for it as we’ve moved forward in the 21st century but there has been much research done by organisations such as the Gina Davis Institute and the Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) own undertaking which have demonstrated a need to address this issue more directly.

Guy Parker, Chief Executive of the ASA says, “Our evidence shows how harmful gender stereotypes in ads can contribute to inequality in society, with costs for all of us. Put simply, we found that some portrayals in ads can, over time, play a part in limiting people’s potential…”

The difficulty for Clearcast comes with applying the rule and its accompanying guidance, because the truth of the matter is that what constitutes a harmful or seriously offensive gender stereotype is a subjective matter open to interpretation. There are the more obvious examples that most people are likely to agree on, like those depicting a man struggling with the cleaning or a woman struggling to parallel park. These negatively reinforce the idea that men can’t do house work without the palaver and women can’t drive. They’re tired old tropes and belong in the bin.

The ASA has now made its first rulings on gender stereotyping in ads.

Clearcast approved three ads, Philadelphia, Volkswagen and Buxton after the new guidance and rule were published in Dec 2018, which have subsequently been investigated since the rules were enforced this year. Philly and VW have been upheld and found in breach whilst the ASA agreed that Buxton was acceptable under the new rule. 

Let’s have a look at each of these in turn and try to break them down:

PHILADELPHIA

The description:

This ad featured a woman passing a baby to a man who then held the baby in his arms. Another man appeared carrying a baby in a car seat. The first man said “New dad, too?” and the second man nodded. The scene was revealed to be a restaurant with a conveyor belt serving buffet food. The men chatted, saying “Wow, look at this lunch”, “Yeah, hard to choose” and “This looks good”, whilst a sitting baby and a car seat were seen on the moving conveyor belt, as the men were distracted by selecting and eating their lunch. The first man then noticed his baby had gone around the conveyor belt, said “errr” and “argh!”, and moved across the room to pick the baby up. The second man picked the baby in the car seat off the conveyor belt, and one of the men said “Let’s not tell mum”.

What the guidance to the rule says:

Ads may feature people undertaking gender-stereotypical roles, but they should take care to avoid suggesting that stereotypical roles or characteristics were always uniquely associated with one gender. The guidance provided examples which were likely to be unacceptable, which included “An ad that depicts a man or a woman failing to achieve a task specifically because of their gender e.g. a man’s inability to change nappies; a woman’s inability to park a car.”

Why we cleared it:

We thought it was clear that the ads depicted nothing more than two new parents displaying a comedic momentary lapse in concentration. A problem any new parent may experience when they become somewhat overwhelmed and tired with their new responsibilities. It was quickly realised and rectified with no harm done.

We didn’t think the ad implied that men are incompetent, failing to achieve the task of looking after their new-borns ‘specifically’, (and this word is important here because the guidance note is clear on this) because of their gender or that these are characteristics which are always uniquely associated with one gender.

The ASA considered:

“We acknowledged the action was intended to be light-hearted and comical and there was no sense that the children were in danger. We considered, however, that the men were portrayed as somewhat hapless and inattentive, which resulted in them being unable to care for the children effectively”.

“…in combination with the opening scene in which one of the babies was handed over by the mother to the father, and the final scene in which one of the fathers said “Let’s not tell mum”, we considered the ad relied on the stereotype that men were unable to care for children as well as women and implied that the fathers had failed to look after the children properly because of their gender.”

“That this ad perpetuated a stereotype that men were ineffective at childcare”.

Implications:

Clearcast will need to consider carefully whether a viewer could infer that the gender of a protagonist may be linked to their failings (or successes) within the narrative of an ad, and whether there is a gender stereotype in society that reflects this. Looking at this ruling, the treatment may have been acceptable without the opening and closing scenes, which the ASA seem to view as indications that mother is the more responsible caregiver.

VOLKSWAGEN

The description:

A TV ad for the Volkswagen eGolf, seen on 14 June 2019, opened with a shot of a woman and a man in a tent. The woman was asleep and the man switched off the light and closed the tent, which was shown to be fixed to a sheer cliff face. The following scene depicted two male astronauts floating in a space ship and a third in the background of undeterminable gender. Text stated “When we learn to adapt”. The next scene showed a male para-athlete with a prosthetic leg doing the long jump. Text stated “we can achieve anything”. The final scene showed a woman sitting on a bench next to a pram. A Volkswagen eGolf passed by quietly. The woman was shown looking up from her book. Text stated “The Golf is electric. The 100% electric eGolf”.

What the guidance to the rule says:

The guidance states that gender-stereotypical roles included occupations or positions usually associated with a specific gender, while gender-stereotypical characteristics included attributes or behaviours usually associated with a specific gender. The guidance stated “Ads that directly contrast male and female stereotypical roles or characteristics need to be handled with care. An ad that depicts a man being adventurous juxtaposed with a woman being delicate or dainty is unlikely to be acceptable”. It further stated that ads may feature people undertaking gender-stereotypical roles, but they should take care to avoid suggesting that stereotypical roles or characteristics were always uniquely associated with one gender; the only options available to one gender; or never carried out or displayed by another gender.

Ads may feature people undertaking gender-stereotypical roles e.g. a woman cleaning the house or a man doing DIY, or displaying gender-stereotypical characteristics e.g. a man being assertive or a woman being sensitive to others’ needs, but they should take care to avoid suggesting that stereotypical roles or characteristics are:

• always uniquely associated with one gender;

• the only options available to one gender;

• never carried out or displayed by another gender.

Why we cleared it:

The opening scene of the couple in the tent featured a man and a woman, demonstrating that the skilled and adventurous undertaking of climbing had been participated in by both; at the end of the vignette the man closed the tent and switched off the light. The following scene featured two male astronauts in the foreground and although ambiguous because of the lack of clarity, it also featured a female astronaut in the background. Discounting that, we didn’t think that the scene suggested that a woman could not be an astronaut. Overall, we believed that the ad was balanced, showing females partaking in adventurous activities alongside males, and the shot of the mother with the pram, although a gender stereotypical role, was not harmful and was acceptable because the mother was not shown to be dainty or delicate and because there was no suggestion that this role is uniquely associated with or available to one gender, in line with the guidance.  

The ASA considered:

“…viewers were likely to focus on the occupations of the characters featured in the ad and observe a direct contrast between how the male and female characters were depicted. By juxtaposing images of men in extraordinary environments and carrying out adventurous activities with women who appeared passive or engaged in a stereotypical care-giving role, we considered that the ad directly contrasted stereotypical male and female roles and characteristics in a manner that gave the impression that they were exclusively associated with one gender. We concluded that the ad presented gender stereotypes in way that was likely to cause harm and therefore breached the Code.”

Implications:

The ASA is indicating that the overall impression left by the ad should be balanced. Even though this ad showed a female having completed a strenuous activity and a female astronaut, achievements on a par with the men featured, they were not shown as active participants in the ad. In light of this ruling, Clearcast will need to carefully consider the nuances of representation, especially at script stage where some of the subtler points of representation may not be evident from the script. This is a broader interpretation of the guidance than was anticipated and will affect many ads, so it’s important that copywriters and account teams make gender clear in scripts when submitting to Clearcast.

BUXTON

The description:

 A TV ad for Buxton bottled water, seen on 15 June 2019, featured a female ballet dancer, a male drummer and a male rower. The dancer was shown as a child and then as an adult practicing in a studio. The drummer was seen playing in a school gym and then on stage. The rower was shown training on a stationary bike and rowing machine and then rowing on a river. Scenes of the three characters practicing their different skills and drinking Buxton water were interspersed with images of water flowing through rock. A voice-over stated “Rock bottom. The start of the journey. There will be obstacles but it’s all about finding a way through, pushing upwards until finally reaching the top. Buxton. Here’s to the up and coming”. On screen text stated “Forced up through a mile of British rock. #HeresToTheUpAndComing”.

What the guidance to the rule says:  

The guidance sets out that a wide body of evidence showed that certain types of gender stereotypes, and ways of depicting gender stereotypes, could negatively reinforce how people think they should look and behave, and how others think they should look and behave, due to their gender. This can lower their self-esteem and limit their aspirations and ability to progress in key aspects of their personal and professional lives, with harmful consequences for them and for society.

Why we approved it:

We didn’t feel the ads indicated that the roles portrayed were always uniquely associated with one gender or that these options are only available to one gender. Whilst the female character was shown to be a ballet dancer, the portrayal was neither delicate nor dainty. She was featured as a tough, athletic character with her practice requiring the same amount of physical exertion as a rower or cyclist, for example. To reach “the top” she had to overcome the same obstacles, constantly pushing herself to her best abilities.

The ASA considered:

“that viewers would understand that the ad was less focussed on the specific occupations of each character, and more focussed on their characteristics – namely equal levels of drive and talent which had allowed them to excel. We also noted that each skill depicted – ballet, drumming and rowing – was shown to be equally difficult and demanding. Therefore we did not consider that the ad perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes and we concluded that it did not breach the Code”. 

Implications:

Gender stereotypical roles may be acceptable where, for example, the focus is on the drive for success.

SUMMARY:

We were pleased that the ASA agreed with our decision on Buxton but the news on Philly and VW was obviously disappointing to us because we felt that in assessing these ads we had fully considered the rule and particularly the guiding principles. Unfortunately, the ASA disagreed. The lines in the sand have begun to be drawn and these rulings will inform our decision making when considering future ads where gender stereotypes might be considered harmful. From our perspective the ASA’s interpretation of the new rule and guidance goes much further than we’d anticipated and the new rule could have significant implications for advertisers and creative agencies, who will have to think much more carefully about narratives and casting when making ads to be shown in the UK market.

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