'Harmful' gender stereotypes have been banned from adverts
We like to think that we have come a long way from the openly sexist advertising of the 50s and 60s. These commercials saw men portrayed as bold, confident breadwinners and women as subservient housewives and doting mothers. To make this assumption was commonsensical rather than offensive.
Commercials which portray women as inferior have rightly been phased out, but subtle sexism still carries throughout many the 30-second TV narratives which we have learned to partly ignore. What you might miss is the proliferation of commercials which reinforce gender stereotypes - a quiet trend which is now being banned from the air.
"Our evidence shows how harmful gender stereotypes in ads can contribute to inequality in society, with costs for all of us,” explained Guy Parker, chief executive of the ASA (Advertising Standards Authority). “Put simply, we found that some portrayals in ads can, over time, play a part in limiting people's potential."
Commercials no longer permitted include those which show an individual failing at a task because of their gender, those aimed at young mothers and which promote the idea that looking good or keeping the home tidy is more important than parenting and those which belittle men for carrying out stereotypically female roles.
The ban is active in the UK, which is home to a booming advertising industry and a significant customer base for many multinationals. The ASA explained that it is banning advertising which would "restrict the choices, aspirations and opportunities of children, young people and adults and these stereotypes can be reinforced by some advertising, which plays a part in unequal gender outcomes".
The ban is hoped to bring British advertising up to speed with changing sensibilities and modern views on equality. “Gender norms that say women should be polite and quiet lead many women to suppress their feelings in their relationships,” explains Karina Sumano on One Love - a website which aims to educate young people on the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships.
“It’s also a part of the reason why women survivors of sexual assault or sexual harassment don’t speak out about their experiences until later in life,” Sumano continues. “However, there are things parents can do to encourage their child to challenge these stereotypes such as encouraging free thought and independence as well as having discussions about stereotypes perpetuated by the media.”
Advertising’s harshest critics might argue that sexism is a mainstay of the industry, making it difficult to move away from. Although far more subtle today, campaigns such as Listerine's “halitosis” commercial have come to characterise this trend. For this campaign, they invented the word "halitosis" (in order to make bad breath seem like a more serious medical condition). But perhaps most notably, it was one of the first television ads which used fear to sell a product.
Today, restrictions on what advertisers can do are far tighter. Commercials are not allowed to be discriminatory, threatening or deceptive. However, by portraying a sanitised interpretation of their customers on television, brands risk perpetuating damaging ideas.
One of the adverts which brought the issue to the ASA’s attention was for Aptimil formula milk. It shows a mother feeding a baby the product and a baby girl growing up to be a ballerina, while a baby boy grows up to be a scientist.
The ASA found that certain parents "felt strongly about the gender based aspirations shown in this advert specifically noting the stereotypical future professions of the boys and girls shown.” They continue: "These parents queried why these stereotypes were needed, feeling that they lacked diversity of gender roles and did not represent real life."
Fernando Desouches, managing director of New Macho, a marketing agency which targets men, believes that this is an advert that would now no longer pass as acceptable for broadcasting. He believes it shows how easy it can be for "deeply entrenched views on gender to come through in an ad that purports to be caring and nurturing of future generations." Desouches was "unsurprised” it created a backlash.
However, others feel that this legislation goes too far. "There's a lot of big things we need to fight over - equality over pay, bullying in the workplace, domestic violence, sexual harassment - these are really big issues that we need to fight over equally," columnist Angela Epstein told the BBC.
"But when you chuck in the fact that women are doing the dishes [in advertising], it's not in the same sphere,” she adds. “When we lump it all together and become desensitised, we devalue those important arguments we need to have."
While many might label this move a reaction to needless complaints by “snowflakes”, the new legislation is limited. For instance, women may still be portrayed cleaning and men doing DIY. It is only when an advert breaks one of the aforementioned rules that it won’t make the cut. Gender stereotypes may also be used in an advert if it encourages viewers to challenge their gender-based assumptions.
Almost since its inception, advertising has been criticised for pigeonholing people based on things like race, gender or sexual orientation. However, while there is still a long way to go, this change represents a small step towards equality.