15 Aug 2019

The new rules prohibiting advertisements from including gender stereotypes likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence came into effect on 14 June 2019, after a 6 month lead-in period. It applies to both broadcast and non-broadcast ads, and has been introduced as BCAP Code Rule 4.14 and CAP Code 4.9 respectively. The ASA has not been slow to take action on this issue, having just (14 August 2019) published rulings on three ads, two of which were viewed on the very day the Rules came into effect. 

The Rules – a reminder

Both the Rule and accompanying Guidance were published as part of the December Statement, following on from the CAP Consultation held over the summer last year. The published Guidance follows the earlier proposed guidance and makes clear that the prohibition is not intended to prevent ads from featuring:

  • glamorous, attractive, successful, aspirational or healthy people or lifestyles
  • one gender only, including in ads for products developed for and aimed at one gender; or
  • gender stereotypes as a means to challenge their negative effects.

The aim of the new rule is to prevent stereotyping in ads which negatively reinforce how people think they should look and behave, and how others think they should do so, based on their gender. It is clear from the Guidance that using humour will not circumvent the new rules, and that ads will be considered from the perspective of those being stereotyped, even if these are portrayed in a light-hearted, banter-type way. The Guiding principles are that:

  • Ads can 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 should 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.

Examples unlikely to be acceptable include ads contrasting male and female stereotypes – for example an adventurous man contrasted with a delicate/dainty female; and ads depicting one gender's inability to perform a task – a woman's inability to park a car or a man struggling to change a baby's nappy.

  • Ads may feature glamorous, attractive, successful, aspirational or healthy people but must avoid suggesting that an individual’s happiness or emotional wellbeing depends on conforming to an idealised gender-stereotypical body shape or physical features. Ads should not suggest that the reason a person is not successful is because they do not conform to the ideal body shape, or that a person's problems were solved by changing their appearance
  • Ads can be targeted at and feature a specific gender of children but should not convey that a particular product, pursuit, activity, or choice of play or career, is inappropriate for one gender or another. An example of this is the criticism levelled at an ad in which baby girls were depicted as growing up to become ballerinas, while baby boys were shown as engineers and rock climbers
  • Ads should be sensitive to the emotional and physical well-being of vulnerable groups of people who may be under pressure to conform to particular gender stereotypes. By way of example, it is unlikely to be acceptable for an ad aimed at new mums suggesting that keeping an immaculate home should be a priority for them
  • Ads should avoid mocking people for not conforming to gender stereotypes, including in a context that is intended to be humorous. So an ad showing a small thin bespectacled man being chased by a group of tall, slim women all due to his aftershave is unlikely to go down well with the ASA.

The rulings

In the case of the Mondelez ad for Philadelphia soft cheese, the ASA has confirmed it's already stated approach to the use of humour, The ad featured two new dads looking after their babies in a restaurant with a conveyor belt serving buffet food. The men were seen chatting, selecting and eating their lunch whilst their babies were seen on the moving conveyor belt. One of the men was then heard saying "Let's not tell Mum". Whilst the ASA acknowledged that the ad was intended to be light-hearted and comical, it considered that the way in which this was done was by relying on the stereotypical notion that men were not as capable in looking after children as women and didn’t look after them properly soles because they were men. The humour did not mitigate the effect of this harmful stereotyping.

The other two rulings centred on the activities being shown in the ads. An ad for the VW eGolf showed various scenarios, involving a female climber sleeping in a tent half-way up a cliff-face, with the male climber being much more prominent, to the extent that the three complainants said that they had not noticed the woman in the tent. The other scenarios featured two male astronauts, one mala para-athlete with the final scene of a woman sitting on a bench next to a pram with the e-Golf passing silently by. Despite VW arguing that the central message of the ad was the ability of the human spirit to adapt to challenges and change, the ASA found that the overall impression of the ad would focus the audience's attention on the occupations of the characters, with men being shown engaging in adventurous activities whilst women were shown in stereotypically passive or caring roles.

By contrast, the complaint made against the Nestle ad for Buxton water was not upheld. That ad depicted a female ballet dancer, a male drummer and a male rower. However, the ballet dancer was shown as being tough and athletic, rather than delicate and dainty, with all three skills being shown to be equally difficult and demanding. In the context of the ad as a whole, the ASA considered that viewers would understand that the ad's focus was on the individuals' relevant characteristics of drive, talent and perseverance rather than their specific occupations, and therefore did not find it in breach of the rules. 

Commentary

All three of the ASA's rulings clearly indicate the ASA's direction of travel and the approach it will take on complaints around gender stereo-typing. They reinforce the points made in the guidance around contrasting male and female stereotypes, ads depicting one gender's inability to perform a task and that using humour in such ads will not prevent the ASA from finding an advertiser to be in breach of the new rules.

Both the Mondelez and VW ads fall squarely into the types of examples given in the guidance (an adventurous man contrasted with a delicate/dainty female and a man struggling to change a baby's nappy), so it is not entirely surprising that the ASA has taken the view it has on both these ads. However, the Nestle ad demonstrates how advertisers can show what may be seen as activities or roles typically associated with one gender or another in a positive non gender-stereotypical way and thus avoid being found in breach of the rules.