A tougher line on gender stereotypes in UK advertising


The announcement that the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is to develop and enforce new standards for advertising in the UK has come in the wake of the publication of a report produced by GfK entitled Depictions, Perceptions & Harm. One area highlighted as a key concern is the use of gender stereotypical roles in advertising.

Specifically the ASA will look to continue to ban ads for objectifying or inappropriately sexualising people, but plans to take this further by taking a “tougher line” on the depiction of stereotypes that could potentially cause harm - for example by mocking people for not conforming to a gender stereotype by suggesting that an activity was inappropriate for boys because it was traditionally associated with girls.

While the ASA says it won’t look to ban all forms of gender stereotypical representation, it is going to be problematic for advertisers to know where to draw the line. For example the ASA says a scenario such as family members creating a mess for which the female has the sole responsibility for cleaning up would be outlawed. Immediately a number of iconic adverts would never have seen the light of day - Fairy Liquid (only women washing up) and the Oxo adverts with the mother cooking meals for her family over the years - being perhaps the two most obvious examples, but the list could go on; most washing powder adverts, any vacuum cleaner, and Flash liquid, which all restrict women to household cleaning tasks whilst men still tend to be the only family members able to clean cars, mow the lawn etc.

The report’s lead author Ella Smilie believes that these portrayals limit how people see themselves, how others see them, and limit the life decisions they make.

There will almost certainly be some backlash from the industry - but perhaps for those with their eye on the ball it could actually represent a potential opportunity. One such area may be the infant formula industry, where currently all adverts (for follow-on milk) depict happy smiling babies and their happy smiling mothers, with very little to differentiate them. Who could fail to remember the first manufacturer who decides to include the mother’s partner taking their turn feeding the baby to let the exhausted mother get some much needed rest?