The UK’s advertising watchdog this week banned two broadcast ads from appearing on UK screens because they contravene new rules prohibiting content that perpetuates gender stereotypes. It’s a wakeup call for advertisers that continue to depict passive women alongside active men, or only one gender succeeding at tasks like childcare, cooking, or cleaning.
It’s the first time the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) rules, which came into force in January, have been used. In both cases the bans came about after the ASA investigated a number of public complaints about the ads. Clearcast, a private company which vets ads before they appear on UK commercial channels to make sure they adhere to ASA rules, had passed both, and said it was “disappointing” that the ASA had disagreed with its judgement. In a statement, Clearcast warned that in future creative agencies and advertisers “will have to think much more carefully about narratives and casting when making ads to be shown in the UK market.”
The first banned ad, for the Volkswagen e-Golf electric car, shows a male climber zipping up a tent on a cliff face, two male astronauts in zero gravity, and a male para-athlete completing a long jump, before ending on a shot of a woman sitting on a bench with a book, a takeaway coffee, and a pram. (A female climber is also visible very briefly in the first shot, but she is asleep.)
The ASA “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,” according to the ruling. VW argued that the activities depicted were not intended to be gendered, and that the presence of the mother was designed to be read as a relatable example of adapting to change—the theme of the ad.
In the second banned ad, from food company Mondelez UK for Philadelphia, a brand of cream cheese, two fathers become distracted in a restaurant and place their babies on a food conveyer belt, only noticing their mistake once the infants have been carried away. At that point, one says “Let’s not tell Mum.” The ASA said that, while it was clear the ad was meant jokingly, the two dads were depicted as “hapless and inattentive” to the extent that it perpetuated the stereotype that fathers are poor at childcare.
The rulings are the latest in a UK trend of holding advertisers to account for creating potentially damaging content. It first banned ads featuring “dangerously thin” models back in 2015, and in 2017 brought in rules that said adverts for kids shouldn’t push the idea of girls as ballerinas and boys as scientists and superheroes. The newest rules on stereotyping in adult ads came in part as a response to billboards created by Protein World in 2015, which asked “Are you beach-body ready?” alongside an image of a thin, bikini-clad model. They were removed from the London Underground after hundreds of complaints.
The global advertising industry itself is struggling both to adapt its internal practices to increasingly loud calls for gender equality, and to produce ads that avoid lazy stereotypes. In the UK—despite some backlash describing the ASA as the “morality police”—failure to do so is becoming more visible.
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