Gender stereotypes in advertising: why the industry must try harder to get it right

New rules to eradicate harmful gender stereotypes in adverts, which came into force in June, have already netted their first offenders.

Television adverts for Philadelphia cream cheese and Volkswagen have both been banned in their current form by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), in line with new guidance issued by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP).

The Philadelphia advert featured two inept new dads who leave their children on a restaurant conveyor belt, while the Volkswagen advert featured men in exciting or dramatic situations, in contrast to the female characters who are either shown sleeping or sat on a bench with a pram.

Members of the public complained that the ads perpetuated negative gender stereotypes. The 128 or so complainants about the Philadelphia advert said it implied that men were incapable of looking after children. Those who complained against the Volkswagen ad said it showed men engaged in adventurous activities, while the women were either passive or depicted in a stereotypical child-caring role.

CAP published its guidance earlier this year after an ASA review in 2017 found harmful stereotypes reinforced by advertising “can restrict the choices, aspirations and opportunities of children, young people and adults”.

The review – ‘Depictions, Perceptions and Harm’ – found that, while most advertisers were getting it right, a tougher line was needed on ads depicting stereotypical gender roles or characteristics.

The move to ban these two adverts has sent a strong message to brands about what is and is not acceptable and has reignited debate within the media, marketing and advertising spheres about the way they approach gender portrayal in light of the new rules.

In recent years, gender issues have never been far from the headlines, shining a spotlight on attitudes and behaviours across the world of politics, business, sport and entertainment that fuel inequality. And rightly so, if we are going to bring about the changes that are needed.

Fortunately, the advertising industry is among those who are making moves to instigate change for the better. The new regulations by CAP is just one example, while the Unstereotype Alliance, co-convened by Unilever and UN Women to “tackle the widespread prevalence of stereotypes that are often perpetuated through advertising and content”, is another.

And many organisations are using advertising to create powerful campaigns aimed at redressing the gender balance. Lucozade Sport rewrote the football anthem Three Lions to gear the nation up to support England’s football team ahead of the Fifa Women’s World Cup this summer. The new version, Three Lionesses, is the soundtrack to the advert, which tells the story of footballers overcoming prejudices to reach international heights.

The challenge for all in the industry – from brands, ad agencies and even regulators – is to gauge where the line is. There are some who say that the ASA is going too far and that its new hard-line approach does nothing but stifle creativity. But at what point does a humorous, tongue-in-cheek portrayal tip into something that reinforces a dangerous stereotype?

Just last year, Freshwater worked alongside the Welsh Government to launch #thisisme, a multi-media campaign challenging gender stereotypes and inequalities to prevent violence and abuse. Part of the Welsh Government’s wider Live Fear Free initiative, it was the first in a series of campaigns aimed at tackling violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence.

Gender inequality is a cause and consequence of this kind of abuse in Wales. The campaign sought to challenge ideas about gender stereotypes using positive examples, such as a man working as a midwife, to spark important discussions about the values and limitations negative gender stereotypes place on us all.

The power of advertising to influence attitudes, behaviour and culture is well-documented and the scale of change that is needed to challenge ingrained stereotypes won’t happen overnight. And, as the recent bans have shown, the industry must try even harder to get it right.

This article was written by our Chief Executive, Angharad Neagle, and appeared in the Western Mail newspaper on 28 August 2019.