Advertising Standards Authority “must do better” on gender stereotypes

  • Date

    Mon 6 Jul 20

A new study describes recent attempts to tackle harmful gender stereotypes in advertising as a “missed opportunity” and criticises the regulator’s “one dimensional” approach to gender, in denial of the wider debate in society.

Experts from the School of Law have published a new study on the use of gender stereotypes in advertising, criticising the recent performance of the regulator and calling for it to revisit its guiding principles to reflect modern attitudes to gender fluidity.

They also call for additional duties to be placed on advertisers, specifically in regards to nudity and the gratuitous use of sexualised imagery.

On 14 June 2019, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) introduced a new rule, stating: “Advertisements must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence”.

A year on, a new study by Dr Alexandros Antoniou and Dr Dimitris Akrivos evaluates the regulator’s approach to harmful gender stereotypes in advertising.

Gender portrayals in advertising: stereotypes, inclusive marketing and regulation, published in the Journal of Media Law, is the first academic study to assess the ASA’s recent actions in this area.

Focusing on the ASA’s adjudications over the last five years, the authors looked at how the Authority has dealt with different forms of gender stereotyping.

Their findings include: too narrow a view, on the ASA’s part, regarding what constitutes gender stereotyping, with a focus on gender roles persisting; too much focus on policing ‘offence’; an underestimation of the potential harms of gender stereotyping; and insufficient attention being paid to the potential harms arising from stereotypes around physical appearance.

The authors also conclude that, a year on, the ASA’s new rule and guidelines represent “a missed opportunity” to take bolder action against ads that objectify or inappropriately sexualise individuals.

Dr Akrivos said: “The regulator has taken steps in the right direction, but a few positive developments must not be allowed to overshadow the work that still needs to be done.

“The ASA’s current approach illustrates the regulator’s one-dimensional definition of the concept of gender. The ASA needs to develop guidelines that go beyond a generic and self-evident ban on traditional gender stereotypes and reflect the multi-faceted manifestations that such portrayals can take.

“The guidance must go beyond the dominant male/female binary and ensure that individuals who do not fit within these rigid categories are also included.”

Dr Antoniou said: “The ASA needs to revisit its guiding principles, to take account of the wider social impact of sexualised imagery and the multi-faceted nature, nuances and fluidity of modern gender identities. We would like to see a new approach, with advertisers required to give ‘due weight and consideration’ to the diversity of modern masculinities and femininities."

The authors recommend the introduction of additional guidelines highlighting that “gender should not be represented as a sexualised eye-catcher without any natural connection to the marketed product or service” and should preclude nudity where used “in a manner appearing to be contemptuous or degrading to the relevant gender(s)”.

The authors observe, “Gender stereotypes are widely shared beliefs about attributes supposed to differentiate men from women and, by doing so, naturalise the power inequality between the two, with women usually being constructed as subordinate to men.”

Although a direct causal link between gender stereotyping in advertising and negative behaviours is yet to be established, the authors observe that stereotyping has been identified as contributing to a wide range of negative social effects including poor body image, lowered aspirations, reduced professional performance - and, by extension, the provision of equal opportunities - and poor mental wellbeing.

Gender stereotyping can take many forms, including the ridiculing of those who do not conform to gender norms.

Dr Antoniou and Dr Akrivos previously analysed the first ads to be banned under the new ASA gender-stereotyping rules. Writing on the International Forum for Responsible Media Blog, they looked at ads including those for the Volkswagen eGolf model and Philadelphia cream cheese.