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Gender stereotypes have been banned from British ads. What does that mean?

The UK’s advertising regulator gave agencies six months to eliminate stereotypes “likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offense.”

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Playing off gender stereotypes to sell stuff is now explicitly against the law for advertisers in the UK.

Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority announced the ban in December, with a six-month buffer period before it went into effect. And that announcement came shortly after the ASA published a 64-page report on how gender stereotypes in ads “can lead to unequal gender outcomes in public and private aspects of people’s lives,” citing public opinion and various experts.

The report was prompted by a series of widely reviled ads in the UK, including those for a Protein World weight loss drink marketed with the tagline “Are you beach body ready?” and a baby formula commercial that showed a girl growing up to be a ballerina and a boy growing up to be a mathematician. (Also Kate Upton’s Game of War commercial.) It also comes after the ASA stepped in to penalize Gucci for “unhealthily thin” models in a 2016 ad campaign, and a more general public feeling of unease about the pernicious effects of advertising, particularly on children.

The new rule says that “advertisements must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offense,” and provides several examples. Ads can’t show men or women “failing to achieve a task specifically because of their gender” (“e.g. a man’s inability to change nappies; a woman’s inability to park a car”), depict “stereotypical personality traits” for boys and girls, or suggest that new mothers “should prioritize their looks or home cleanliness over their emotional health.”

Somewhat unrelated to gender stereotypes, this new rule also bans ads that “connect physical features with success in the romantic or social spheres.”

And notably, it does not ban showing women or men performing stereotypical tasks (e.g., women shopping or men doing at-home construction projects). Ads can still be targeted based on gender as well. The clarification of the rule also helpfully explains that ads can still portray “glamorous, attractive, successful, aspirational, or healthy people or lifestyles.”

While the step seems well-intentioned, there are a lot of obvious questions, such as: Beyond this handful of fairly obvious examples, what counts as a gender stereotype? And how might they intersect with other stereotypes along racial or class lines? Is there really that great of a reason to disrupt representation in advertising, so that everyone can be equally manipulated into buying stuff they don’t need?

I spoke to Brooke Erin Duffy, an assistant professor of communication at Cornell University who published a paper on the famous Dove “Real Beauty” campaign in 2010, to get some answers.

Our conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.

As a topline reaction to this measure, is it useful? Is it important? Why is it happening now?

It’s interesting. I used to teach an “advertising and society” class, and one of the key themes of the course is that advertising helps us as consumers and citizens understand the social world and our place within it. Advertising shapes our culture, but it also reflects our culture. And we’re at a cultural moment where there is increasing recognition that the traditional ways of representing gender don’t make sense anymore.

The very limiting portrayals of gender which have sustained the advertising industry for well over a century no longer resonate with our social world. And so I think that’s kind of the reason we’re seeing this now. I also think there is something to be said for the role digital media play in this — both in circulating a wider pool of images of ordinary people and people who challenge conventional definitions of beauty and stereotypical gender roles. Digital media also gives audiences a chance to “talk back” to advertisers. We’ve seen so many ads over the past few years that have generated significant backlash on social media in part because of the limited ways in which gender is circulated.

All of these factors — recognition of gender inequalities, recognition of different gender identities, chances for audiences to talk back — they kind of provide scaffolding for changes in regulation.

So part of this is about representation. The Geena Davis Institute recently did this whole study with Google where they talked about the lack of representation and speaking roles for women in ads. My reaction to that is kind of: Why would I care about being represented in advertising? Why do I want the advertising industry to get better at manipulating me to buy stuff? I understand representation as a broad cause, but applied to advertising, there’s a strange tension.

There is, and I think it breaks down to this idea of citizens and consumers. We may not want the advertising industry to be responsive to us in terms of better targeting, but advertisements do communicate something to wider publics and citizens about various social groups and their placement and allocations of power. So the reason we want them to get better is less about their economic functions and much more about the social and cultural function of advertising.

The ban also explicitly says that ads can still use “gender stereotypes as a means to challenge their negative effects.” They’re still going to let ads play with stereotypes that were used in previous ads.

I think there’s where we see that the line can be a bit murky. What the advertising industry has done for the past decade or so is increasingly respond to consumer savvy, incorporating this idea of “the knowing wink.” They may drape these stereotypes in irony or humor or reflexivity, but I think that’s going to be very hard to police.

And the very term “harmful” can be hard to police because it’s so subjective. That’s where the onus should be on the advertising industry. We also have to think about the demographic makeup of the industry itself. Advertising is notoriously a male-dominated and masculine culture, and there are these occupational clusters where men tend to hold the executive and creator positions while women have held the administrative positions. When I come across ads that are so expressly offensive, you have to think about who’s behind the scenes here. My hope is that we’re seeing women and marginalized communities having increased roles within this industry and sort of engage in self-regulation.

Defining what a gender stereotype is seems extremely murky to me, especially since only a few examples are given and they’re all super specific to the domestic routine. Like, don’t show a dad not knowing how to change a diaper!

I absolutely agree. I think the definition of what they’re calling harmful and even the definition of stereotypes is in certain contexts very fuzzy. Gender portrayals in both the workplace and domestic life make it easier to parse out what a stereotype may look like, but there is still going to be a lot of leeway.

There’s this text, Gender Advertisements. It was written in 1979 by the sociologist Erving Goffman, and he did this analysis of hundreds of US ads for gender roles and offered up this typology for a number of ways in which gender-based power relations get communicated. And some of them are much more subtle. One is called “the feminine touch” — it’s basically like, if you picture how a woman in an ad holds a product compared to a man, the woman kind of daintily touches it, where a man seems to grip it. He talked about things like the relative size and position of people in ads — the female may be reclined while the male would be standing up.

It seems especially relevant now because it provides a useful way to think about the more subtle ways gender bias and gender stereotypes get communicated, but it’s in the nature of this nuance that makes policing and regulation much more difficult, much more onerous.

A Hoover vacuum cleaner ad from the 1940s.

The report basically says that no one knows if these tropes came from advertising or if advertising just enforces them. Is that true?

It’s difficult to establish any kind of linear causation relationship between whether advertisers were distinctly creating this or whether they were responding to cues in society and enforcing some of the elements that would sell better. The whole history of advertising in the US was based on the assumption that women were the primary consumers. There’s this great text I read that talks about Mr. Breadwinner and Mrs. Consumer. It’s difficult to say “this particular ad led to this particular framework of women,” but I would say on a societal level, absolutely, these limiting images have been at the cornerstone of the advertising industry, in some cases since the late 19th century.

You’ve probably heard the term “Always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” That’s actually from an early Listerine ad, where the story is about this woman, and if she doesn’t use Listerine she’s not going to get married. Advertisements have traditionally exploited individuals’ fears. The fears for women in the early 20th century, because of their social recognition, were very much based on being a good wife and mother. Our society’s model for masculinity was being a good provider and worker. So the advertising industry tapped into these fears and provided products that could ameliorate these fears.

That’s where the stereotypes have been the most influential. It’s less in the individual level and more in providing these sociocultural models for what a proper feminine woman is like or what a proper masculine male is like. By furnishing these models, they help to create a sense of aspirationalism and idealism or, alternatively, fears that can be addressed through the consumer marketplace.

In addition to the UK, there are several other countries that have regulations around gender stereotypes in ads: Belgium, France, Finland, etc. Norway has had one since 1978. Why do US regulations only apply to ads targeting children? Is there a chance that’ll change?

The UK has historically had much more aggressive standards in regulating the advertising industry. We saw this in the case of their banning of false advertising, and in the social media context with enforcing product disclosures to an extent to which the US has been less aggressive.

I think a lot of it comes down to the history of advertising in sort of economic contexts and the tradition of self-regulation. Any industry is going to advocate self-regulation because it gives them much more control within these standards. And so the US industry has traditionally espoused this sort of self-regulatory model for a whole host of political and economic reasons. That’s one of the explanations for why we see the UK and other European countries much more willing both to create and enforce these standards. There’s a hope that these guidelines will be successful and have an international uptake.

There’s not really any acknowledgment anywhere of gender stereotypes intersecting with racial or class stereotypes. Maybe that’s more of an American concern, but that seemed strange to me.

It is. It’s still — I don’t want to say superficial, it’s not superficial — but it’s still surface-level. I think it’s an important start, but it does fail to account for the recognition of intersectionality politics, the ways in which gender is deeply interconnected with race and ethnicity and age and sexuality and all of that. I don’t want to take away from it because I think it is a step in the right direction, and I would support the US doing something like this. But I think our economic history of self-regulation makes me question whether the standards would translate to advertising in the US.

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