The Advertising Standards Authority recently courted Twitter controversy after banning two adverts on the grounds of gender stereotyping.
Outrage from certain corners of the Internet is somewhat inevitable when any social justice concern is moved forward. Criticisms levelled at the ruling have taken the form of ‘oversensitivity’ and ‘censorship’, with many wondering if these regulations have ‘gone too far’.
However, the ASA is also respected by many in the marketing and advertising sectors as a body that has continually raised standards and protected consumers. The regulations were put in place after extensive research into the damaging effects on women’s lives and ambitions of witnessing, over and over, stereotypical portrayals of gender in advertising.
It seems that many critics of the ban on gender stereotyping ads underestimate just how susceptible all of us are to the messaging we absorb through marketing and media. We would all like to think of ourselves as proud and independent thinkers, but the truth is that our pattern-seeking brains are wired for reducing complexity and reaching quick conclusions. Advertising is designed to tap into these hard-wired process in order to affect perceptions. If, time and again, it portrays women in passive or care-giving roles, or representing only women in certain body sizes, shapes and colours, for instance, these portrayals begin to affect how we perceive ourselves and others, with negative consequences for women, society and the economy.
Let’s delve a bit deeper into the messaging of the two banned adverts and contemplate the effect their stereotypes might have on women’s self-perceptions and public expectations of women. This might help understand the motives behind the ASA’s new regulations.
Philadelphia – Bungling Dads, Imbalanced Childcare, Old-Fashioned Views on Parenting
The Philadelphia ad is - in our opinion - the more deserving of the ban. The TV spot features two dads in a restaurant, completely messing up simple acts of childcare and mistakenly putting their baby carrier (complete with baby) onto a sushi conveyor belt.
At one level, it could be said to be just a bit of ‘light-hearted fun’. But this advert reinforces the idea that men are incapable of childcare, an assumption which is damaging to men, women and children. This portrayal of men has worked over the years to create emotional distance between fathers and their children. Generations of children have grown up without an emotional intimacy of their dads, leaving both children and fathers impoverished in the process. The assumed ineptitude of fathers also puts the burden of being the sole provider on women, who are deemed uniquely capable of caring for their children, which in turn limits their professional lives. Many women would like to return to work but stereotypes push women into a permanent role of the ‘stay at home mum’ as they feed the view that childcare cannot be shared between two responsible adults.
The stereotype of the ‘bungling father’ is trotted out a lot in creative departments and on TV ads. It’s a familiar archetype, an old joke we all recognise. The problem with this kind of narrative humour is that it represents the world we used to live in, not the one we aspire to live in.
This messaging feels out of place for 2019 audiences. Many brands have courted lucrative new audiences by speaking to the ‘modern father’ – the man who is not afraid to carry his offspring in a papoose, who relishes time spent with his children, competently changes nappies and can cook a healthy meal for the family. Modern audiences resonate with depictions of men as caring fathers, active participants in family life, modern men. These representations benefit us all, which is why they now have such a wide appeal.
Perhaps it helps to imagine the reverse scenario. Could you imagine a TV advert featuring a bungling mum misplacing her child? There would be outrage – child protection lines would be called! Our societal messaging needs to catch up.
VW – Women as mothers, and little else
The reasoning for the VW ban is more nuanced but revolves around depiction of women as passive beings, confined to the same social categories. We see inspiring portrayals of men in bold and brave pursuits relevant to ‘adaptation’ - such as going into space and taking part in sports at the highest level - but the hero spot for women is centred around motherhood and childcare: quietly reading a magazine on a bench while taking the baby for a stroll.
Many have objected to this ban, stating that motherhood is a great, fulfilling and important role for women and that women can, and indeed do, make the positive and active choice of being full-time mothers in unpaid work. What’s wrong with that? Indeed, what’s wrong with women taking a little break on a park bench? Do they need to be active all the time?
There is nothing wrong with that. Certainly, learning how to raise children and think constantly about the survival of another is a huge ‘adaptation’. But the complex and constantly evolving demands of motherhood/parenthood are hardly drawn out in this ad.
It’s not as though it is impossible to shift the narrative around gender. We see more and more ads that get this right and help tackle stereotypes instead of perpetuating them. Nike’s ‘Greatest Athlete Ever’ campaign is a case in point, as is the Always ad challenging our demeaning notions of doing something ‘like a girl’
So, while neither the Philadelphia nor the VW ad portrays gender in an overtly offensive way, we believe it is right that the regulator should take seriously the subtext they contain. There is the possibility (as is always the case with anything to do with diversity and inclusion) that there could be a backlash among the general public against bans like these, but this only reinforces the need for such regulations. If the ASA regulations can encourage adland to think more deeply and creatively about how it portrays men and women, this can only be a good thing.
What adverts have you seen or watched that you think should be banned?
Unfortunately, there is plenty of advertising content out there that induces eye rolls, raised eyebrows and exasperated tuts rather than inspiration and a rush to support the brand. We would love to know which adverts you have seen – recently or in years past – that you think should be worthy of an ASA ban or, conversely, of acclaim for getting portrayals right. Please get in touch and let us have your views!