Sales & Marketing

Proposals to ban harmful gender stereotypes in advertising

6 min read

01 June 2018

The body responsible for writing the UK's advertising rules, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), has published a consultation on a proposed rule to prohibit the use of harmful gender stereotypes.

It is proposed that an additional rule be added to the UK advertising code which prohibits “gender stereotypes likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence”. The proposal follows an Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) report undertaken in 2017.

Proposed guidance

The proposed prohibition is not intended to prevent ads from…

• featuring glamorous, attractive, successful, aspirational or healthy people or lifestyles
• featuring one gender only, including in ads for products developed for and aimed at one gender; and
• presenting gender stereotypes as a means to challenge their negative effects.

Gender stereotypes perceived as harmful are unlikely to circumvent these rules by the use of humour. The ASA will consider stereotypes from the perspective of the group of individuals being stereotyped. A number of guiding principles and examples of ads which are likely to be unacceptable are contained in the proposed guidance under the following broad headings:

Scenarios featuring gender stereotypical roles and characteristics

Ads may feature people undertaking gender stereotypical roles or displaying gender stereotypical characteristics. However, marketers must take care to avoid suggesting these roles or characteristics are…

• always uniquely associated with one gender
• the only options available to one gender; or
• never carried out or displayed by another gender.

Examples of ads that are unlikely to be acceptable include…

• ads contrasting male and female stereotypes e.g. an adventurous man contrasted with a delicate woman; and
• ads depicting one gender’s inability to perform a particular task e.g. a woman’s inability to park a car or a man’s inability to change a nappy.

Pressure to conform to an idealised body shape or physical features

Ads may feature idealised body shapes and physical features stereotypically associated with women and men, but care must be taken to avoid suggesting happiness or emotional wellbeing should depend on conforming to those stereotypes. For example, an ad should not imply that a person’s non-stereotypical physique is the reason for them not being successful in their social or romantic lives.

Scenarios aimed at or featuring children

Ads can show children undertaking an activity which is stereotypically associated with their gender or using colours, music or settings which are stereotypically associated with their gender. 

However, the guidance warns not to explicitly convey that a particular children’s product, activity, career etc is only appropriate for one gender. Particular care must be taken not to infer “what a children can or cannot be” because of gender.

Scenarios aimed at or featuring potential vulnerable groups

Ads should be sensitive to particular groups of people who may be under pressure to conform to particular gender stereotypes such as young people and new mothers. It is unlikely to be acceptable for an ad aimed at new mums to suggest looking attractive or keeping a clean home is a priority over emotional wellbeing.

Scenarios featuring people who don’t conform to a gender stereotype

Ads should avoid making fun of people for not conforming to gender stereotypes. As referred to above, the use of humour does not mitigate what is otherwise considered to be a depiction in the ad of a harmful gender stereotype.

More explanation is definitely needed

Whilst the proposed new prohibition in respect of harmful gender stereotyping is to be welcomed, based upon our experience of reviewing copy and campaigns, we anticipate that companies would benefit from more, and more detailed, examples. This is especially the case where some of the examples in the proposed guidance overlap and/or add little to the guiding principles.

We anticipate that the proposed prohibition will be particularly challenging for brands that seek to adopt a humorous style. The ASA is clear that what it considers to be unacceptable depictions in ads will not be mitigated by the use of humour or “banter”.

Does this mean that, for example, the older-style Diet Coke ads featuring women office workers gathering to watch a handsome construction worker strip off his shirt and then drink a diet coke would fall foul of these rules? On our reading of the guidance, the answer is a resounding yes, on a number of fronts.

The CAP’s consultation specifically asks for feedback on the draft guidance as well as on the rule itself. We would encourage businesses to respond to this, with practical examples where possible, to persuade CAP to elaborate more fully on what the rules mean in practice. Businesses have until 5pm on 26 July 2018 to respond.

Nicky Strong is a consultant, and Ashley Borthwick is an associate at law firm Womble Bond Dickinson