Advertisements have become a relentless and unavoidable aspect of our modern society. TV, social media, newspapers and the internet are completely saturated with adverts, and their pervasive, persistent nature means that we cannot help but internalise the messages they exude. As a result, the rules that govern these adverts have to change with the culture and audiences they target.
The Advertising Standards Association (ASA) has recently revealed new legislation, due to be implemented in 2018, that bans adverts that ‘feature stereotypical gender roles or characteristics which, through their content and context, might be potentially harmful to people.’ The reaction to the announcement has been mixed: in a survey done by the Telegraph, 72% of respondents felt that the action was closer to ‘political correctness gone mad’ than a positive step for society, although all the other industry bodies have agreed with the ruling. However, I personally feel that this step by the ASA, which at a closer look is not at all as extreme as many of the headlines have made it seem, is nothing but beneficial for the advertising industry, and therefore society.
Adverts are so omnipresent it is inevitable that if agencies keep creating work that plays to tired gender stereotypes, these generalisations will remain, and it is this which the new ASA rulings are attempting to change. For example, the ASA does not go so far as to stop adverts from showing a mother cleaning the house, or a man doing DIY, as this would be ‘unrealistic’. However, adverts that show a mother being left alone to clean up the mess made by her children and husband would not be allowed under new legislation, as it would suggest that cleaning is the mother’s task (and whilst this might be true in some houses, it should not be expected as the norm). Similarly, an advert depicting a man being unable to complete simple domestic tasks would be banned: after all, suggesting that men are too stupid to be able to clean or look after their children is insulting to the entire gender.
There is still a lack of diversity, with brands taking a seemingly liberal and positive notion and using it solely as a marketing ploy
The ASA also say that if ‘an ad that suggests an activity is inappropriate for a girl because it is stereotypically associated with boys or vice versa’, then it should not be allowed. This is not, as some people have interpreted it as being, an extremely liberal organisation saying that girls should not be allowed to dream of being princesses or boys of being footballers, but simply that an advert should not say that girls cannot themselves dream of being footballers because it is a stereotypically masculine sport. Even if adverts do not explicitly say this, but it is heavily implied, their adverts could be at risk of being banned. For example, a GAP Kids advert from last year that featured a boy in an Albert Einstein top with the caption ‘your future starts here’ and a girl was dressed in a jumper with a pink ‘G’ on the front with the caption ‘the Social Butterfly‘ could face consequences from the ASA under new rulings (the advert was taken down by GAP due to the outrage it caused before it was brought before the ASA). The advert raised furore due to its shameless stereotyping, as although there is nothing wrong with boys being scientists and girls being socialites, separating such clothes by gender insinuates that the reverse is not possible.
Of course, these rulings don’t mean that all adverts will now not be problematic; whilst a major step has been taken, there is still a lack of diversity, with brands taking a seemingly liberal and positive notion and using it solely as a marketing ploy. For example, Pepsi’s recent advert seemed to ‘trivialise demonstrations for social justice causes‘ despite its claims that it only wanted to ‘project a global message of unity’, and many other campaigns are being called out for using feminism as a marketing tool However, despite the various obstacles that remain in the path of full and effective representation, this is undoubtedly a fantastic step towards ending sexist stereotypes in UK adverts.