ASA review of rules prohibiting gender stereotyping in advertising

March 16, 2021
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The Advertising Standards Agency has recently concluded a 12-month review into whether the rules introduced in 2019 are meeting their objective of preventing harmful gender stereotypes.

The review focused mainly on relevant ASA rulings and the application of its own guidance.

Recap of the guidance

The gender stereotype rules state that adverts “must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence” (CAP rule 4.9 and BCAP rule 4.1). 

The ASA issued guidance to support the rule and to assist advertisers in identifying when the portrayal of a gender stereotype might be harmful or offensive.

The sorts of gender stereotypes that are specifically addressed in the ASA’s guidance are those relating to the protected characteristics of gender reassignment, pregnancy and maternity, sex or sexual orientation and those relating to age, disability, race and religion or belief.  Other categories of harmful and/or offensive stereotypes associated with gender include sexualisation and objectification (offence), body image (social responsibility) and sexual imagery (children).

Neither the rules nor the guidance prevent adverts from depicting:

  • glamorous, attractive, successful, aspirational or healthy people or lifestyles;
  • one gender only, in particular where products are aimed at a particular audience; or
  • gender stereotypes as a means to challenge their negative effects,

as long as the advertiser takes care to ensure that the depiction does not cause harm or offence. 

Review outcome

The ASA concluded that its rules and guidance were meeting their objectives and should be retained.  But the ASA will continue to monitor the rules and guidance carefully, because specific principles have yet to be tested. 

The untested areas include adverts that:

  • feature pressure to conform to an idealised gender-stereotypical body shape or physical features;
  • are aimed at or feature children;
  • are aimed at or feature potentially vulnerable groups; and/or
  • contain depictions that mock people for not conforming to gender stereotypes.

What is clear, however, is that:

  • the ASA is taking a strict approach to the application of the rules;
  • the use of humour can be troublesome when depicting gender stereotypes, as it can be seen to be mocking one or both genders, and the ASA is likely to consider adverts in breach of the Codes even where the depiction of the gender stereotype was intended to be humorous rather than harmful;
  • the ASA may consider the effect of adverts (for example, an advert depicting three professionals excelling in their fields was held not to be in breach of the gender stereotype rule, even though the professions were commonly held gender stereotypes, and that was because the focus of the advert was the professionals’ success, and it did not state that only a specific gender could carry out the particular role); and
  • the ASA is likely to consider the perspective of the stereotyped group.

Comment

The ASA has supported the #filterdrop campaign, which proposes to make it compulsory for influencers to state whether or not they are using filters when advertising cosmetics to combat misleading advertising.  It has also responded to the Women and Equality Committee’s call for evidence relating to an inquiry into body image.  So it seems that the ASA will be focussing on gender more broadly and is interested in monitoring how gender stereotypes and body image are portrayed to the public.

Peter HoptonPeter Hopton
Peter Hopton
Peter Hopton
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Associate
Louise JordanLouise Jordan
Louise Jordan
Louise Jordan
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Trainee Solicitor

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