Gender Stereotyping in Advertising


The ASA (Advertising Standards Authority) brought in Gender Stereotyping rules on June 14th 2019 which stated that [Advertisements] must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.

Gender Stereotyping in Advertising
Gender Stereotyping in Advertising

The first adverts to fall foul of the rules are Volkswagen and Philadelphia. An advert for Buxton water was declared not to break the gender stereotyping rules

The problems for advertisers is to determine what is likely to cause harm or cause serious or widespread offence. It can be argued that an advert that only brings three complaints , as did the VW advert, is not causing widespread offence amongst the many millions that will have seen it.

The VW advert showed two male astronauts allegedly occupied in adventurous activities whilst a woman was shown with a pram. An athlete with a prosthetic leg was shown taking part in the long jump. In considering whether there is gender stereotyping here we have to consider whether the fact he is male preclude females from taking part in sport. Or if it implies only males can take part in sport.

The advert opens with a couple in a tent. The woman is asleep and the man is closing the tent. We then see the tent is on a narrow ledge high on a mountain. The implied issue here seems to be that the woman is being passive and the man adventurous. Another reading of the situation is that the woman is very relaxed in an adventurous, indeed perilous, situation.

The Volkswagen advert the ASA banned

Gender Stereotyping in Advertising: The Problem of Legal Interpretation

The problem advertisers have is that they have to interpret vague terms such as “harm”,”widespread” and “offence”. The rules don’t define these terms.

In terms of the VW advert, the ASA in their summing up said ” Taking into account the overall impression of the ad, we considered that 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”.

The Philadelphia advert the ASA banned

The problem is that anything in any advert is likely to cause someone harm or offence and the question has to be where do we draw the line. Without the ASA being very clear about this advertisers will always be working with vague rules that are interpreted by different people in different ways

The Buxton Water Advert the ASA Allowed

In the Buxton advert the ASA were happy that the genders used were not stereotypic because they were real people undertaking what they were genuinely expert at.

Gender Stereotyping in Advertising Interview on BBC Radio Scotland

The above was written in preparation for an interview on Gender Stereotyping. I was interviewed by Stephen Jardine on July 14th 2019 alongside Lydia Marshall from the ASA and comedian Kate Smurthwaite.

It was interesting to note that LydiaMarshall said that “advertising has a small role to play in stereotyping” and agreed with me that we should celebrate the fact that only two adverts were found wanting out of the many thousands that were on TV and in other media since the new rules came into place.

Stefan’s Interviews

There’s more on my interviews here

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