Harmful stereotypes in advertising: Our quick guide to the ASA's new rules

Advert for Gap Kidswear

This week the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) confirmed that new rules on gender stereotyping in advertising will come into affect in June 2019. This move follows a lengthy study published last Summer on practices covering body image, objectification, sexualisation, gender characteristics and the mocking of people who don’t conform to gender stereotypes. We had a look through the report, and although we welcome this move, there is more that can be done to inform good practice. Here is a quick summary of the studies findings.

“Gender stereotypes have the potential to cause harm by inviting assumptions about adults and children that might negatively restrict how they see themselves and how others see them." ASA Report "Depictions, Perceptions and Harms"

Research for the report started in 2012, and a lot of the findings are based on complaints made by members of the public to the ASA about harmful advertising campaigns, in particular, concerns over gender stereotyping. This includes a 2016 poll of 1000 British parents which found a significant majority wanted marketing groups to stop pushing gender stereotypes. The report also points out that these issues have been raised in parliament, particularly by MP’s like Chi Onwurah who has been a vocal supporter of Let Clothes Be Clothes and Let Toys Be Toys.

Is this an attack on free speech? Well, no. As the research summary states, you have the right to free speech, but not to cause harm, and there is plenty of evidence that marketing and advertising campaigns that use harmful gender stereotypes have serious implications for children and young people. Marketing and advertising must be socially responsible, which is why the ASA has ruled against adverts that objectify or sexualize women and girls. Between 2015 and 2016, the ASA looked at 913 cases relating to the depiction of women, and 465 cases broadly related to men.

Getty Images via the BBC

The codification of “for boys” and “for girls” was also raised in the report, but reflected that issues surrounding women portrayed in a domestic setting or caring role, against men depicted doing DIY or being the family breadwinner for example, were rarely formally investigated. The ASA could however see a connection between real-world inequality (outlined by the 2010 Equality Act), such as the career aspirations of girls, against the rise of gender stereotypes in advertising and marketing.

“These issues arguably evidence a critical level of concern about gender, and the factors that may contribute to the development o boys and girl, and different outcomes for them as men and women. Many would argue that “equality” or, rather, the unfairness of inequality lies at the heart of the stated concern.”

The ASA found that some advertisers had already identified advantages of offering “real world scenarios” more aligned with modern society, ie, they accurately reflect their customer base, and noted initiatives such as celebrating empowered women (Hearst publishing) and Channel Four’s Diversity Charter. Research conducted by US advertising agency Badger and Winters examined the impact of objectification of women in advertising and found such adverts actually had a negative impact on the brands reputation. Successful campaigns like “ This Girl Can” (Sports England) and “Like a Girl” (Always) show that directly challenging gender stereotypes can have a positive impact on brand power and consumer confidence. Unfortunately the new rules don't expand on how advertisers can move beyond visuals and messages that stereotype men and women, and instead would look to investigate adverts on a case by case basis.

“Evidence demonstrates that reinforcing and perpetuating traditional gender roles can lead to sub-optimal outcomes for individuals and groups in terms of their professional attainment and personal development.”

Perhaps most concerning, but not surprising to us, is that the report makes clear that young children are “in particular need of protection from harmful stereotypes as they are more likely to internalise the messages they see.” What constitutes “harmful” enough for the ASA to act is unclear, but states that the status quo “is not acceptable.” A “single cultural picture” in itself reinforces cultural expectations, and repeated exposure means that those ideas become accepted as reality. That is a very powerful idea, and as parents we have the right to challenge marketing aimed at our children and say “I’m not ok with this." Clearly the ASA are going to take these concerns more seriously than before.

So what can the ASA do? Although the ASA is self-regulated, it has the support of Ofcom - the UK’s communication’s regulator, which covers TV, radio, mobiles and postal services. Formal complaints are investigated and logged, which will help build a body of evidence that may inform future policy at the ASA. Unfortunately, the ASA are focused on investigating individual campaigns, rather than looking at the root cause or the cumulative effect of these adverts. We know that it isn't just one brand or one particular marketing campaign that is the problem, but the constant bombardment or drip drip messaging, that has had an impact on how children see themselves and each other. The ASA has said adverts that contrast boys as daring, versus girls as caring, “need to be handled with care" but this seems a weak admission given the body of evidence in their own report. We would like to see the ASA go further on how they handle advertising campaigns aimed specifically at children, and promote a broader culture of social responsibility amongst marketers (rather than challenging after the fact.) Clearly there are benefits to this on all sides, both brands and consumers.

The ASA can investigate the following, and we would urge anyone with a complaint related to marketing of children's clothing or toys to contact both the retailer directly and the ASA:

Advertising campaigns on posters and billboards

Advertisements in the press, on radio, TV, video on demand, mobiles etc

Commercial emails and text messages

Adverts used in cinemas

Advert “claims” used on commercial websites

Direct mail adverts (even if its not address to you)

“We also help to make sure people across the UK are satisfied with what they see and hear on TV and radio, and that programmes reflect the audiences they serve. We consider every complaint we receive from viewers and listeners. Often, we investigate further and we sometimes find broadcasters in breach of our rules.” Ofcom

To make a complaint to Ofcom (the communications regulator) please click here

To make a complaint to the ASA (Advertising Standards Agency) please click here