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News & Views

UK watchdog bans gender stereotypes in ads

In the UK, the Advertising Standards Authority has vowed to come down harder on ads containing harmful gender stereotypes, starting in 2018. This follows the publication of ‘Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: A Report on Gender Stereotypes in Advertising’, which consisted of a year’s worth of research and careful examination of the current state of gender portrayals in advertising.

The ASA has a strict vetting procedure for ads that promote sexualisation or unhealthy body ideals. But up until now, there has been no official rule against gender stereotyping, unlike watchdogs in countries like France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Norway, Finland, South Africa and India. This new tougher stance on the ASA’s part echoes the mission of the Unstereotype Alliance, an initiative which aims to challenge stereotypes in advertising globally, recently launched by the United Nations in collaboration with Unilever, WPP, Procter & Gamble, Google and Facebook.

“Attempts to counter the prevalence of gender stereotyping in the popular media are popularly dismissed as ‘social engineering’ designed to alter ‘natural’ behaviours for each gender. However, the stereotypes we see represented in advertising are already ideologically motivated by centuries of gender inequality,” says Michelle Smith, Research Fellow at Deakin University. “Gender is a social construct and we have the power to shape and revise what is considered masculine and feminine. And the media we consume – particularly advertising, which we see continuously – are particularly powerful in shaping what we think is ‘normal’ and acceptable for men and women to do.”

Ubiquitous modern stereotypes in advertising include the notion that housework is the sole purview of women or that openly expressing emotion is innately feminine. Conventional narratives persist because they function as a shorthand, a way of creating an immediate set of associations in the viewer, which can be immensely helpful when you only have twenty seconds to convey your message. But it’s time we start to unpack those associations.

There is still space for nuance in domestic portrayals. Depicting a woman as the sole caregiver of children, as the only person responsible for cooking and cleaning, or equally, framing men as monosyllabic, messy, and useless around the house — these are images which help further entrench restrictive gender roles in real life.

This is often true of the images we see relating to products for children, where boys are presented as ‘brave’, ‘clever’ and ‘intrepid’, while girls are limited to ‘pretty’ or ‘nurturing’.

“Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is,” writes Guy Parker, CEO of the ASA, in an op-ed for the New Statesman. “And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too.”

The ASA’s ruling has prompted a largely positive response. In Singapore, digital consultant and women’s network leader Meera Jane Navaratnam sees such a ruling as an encouraging development, and one she hopes the Singaporean ASA would consider replicating. “We have to work harder to make our narrative, stories and the content we are developing inclusive,” she says. “Otherwise, they will be simply just irrelevant.”

Meanwhile, journalist Amelia Tait believes that abandoning stereotypes in ads will help men as much as women, by reducing the social pressure to behave in a traditionally masculine way, which so often translates to repressive stoicism, while simultaneously providing refreshing alternative representation for women.

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