Walk the line - Footcare and other ASA rulings on gender stereotypes in advertising

December 7, 2021
Round sign with an outline of a woman in white on a black background and an outline of a man in black on a white background

A recent ASA decision [1] serves as a reminder for advertisers to proceed with caution where gender stereotyping is concerned.  In this instance, the ASA cleared a footwear advertiser of perpetuating harmful gender stereotypes in breach of BCAP Code rule 4.14.  Yet there have been several rulings considering the topic since the rule (and its CAP Code counterpart) came into force in June 2019.  Inevitably, some advertisers have fallen foul of the prohibition, and we consider how and why in this article.

Footcare advert

The International Footcare ad showed a man wearing a lab coat discussing the technical merits of the shoes.  Meanwhile a woman commented on the way the shoes looked and felt.  In coming to its decision, the ASA considered that the scenario did not depend on the fact that the podiatrist was male, or that the woman was depicted as lacking in seriousness.  Instead, the woman’s comments showed her translating the podiatrist’s dry technical language into terms that everyone could understand.

The ASA also thought it important that only one person of each gender was represented in the ad, as this suggested that the rules or characteristics presented were not solely associated with one gender, were not the only options available to one gender, and could be carried or displayed by another gender. In addition, the ASA considered that viewers would understand that the two characters were offering two different, yet equally valid, perspectives on the product.

Spin Scrubber ad

Advertisers are not always so successful in presenting equality between the genders to the ASA’s satisfaction.  The International Footcare decision follows on the heels of an ASA ruling earlier in 2021 on an ad for JML Direct’s “Spin Scrubber” cleaning tool. [2] The ASA found that the ad breached BCAP Code rule 4.14 by presenting stereotypes in a way that was likely to cause harm and offence.  

The ad for the “Spin Scrubber” featured a number of people cleaning, most of whom were easily identifiable as women.  Four of the women spoke about the product, and their testimonials suggested that they felt pressure to keep their homes clean and tidy, and that it was their responsibility to tidy up after other people. The only identifiable male person featured was shown cleaning patio furniture and did not comment to state that he felt similarly embarrassed if the furniture was not clean.

History of the ban so far

Since the Committee of Advertising Practice introduced the rules to combat negative gender stereotyping, addressing the practice has been a key area for the ASA.  In 2019, the ASA ruled on ads from Volkswagen and Philadelphia. [3] Both were found to be in breach of the BCAP Code as the ads depicted men engaging in dangerous activities (Volkswagen) and irresponsible parenting (Philadelphia).  The depictions were considered to reinforce the stereotypes that men participate in daring, adventurous activities, while women take on caring, nurturing roles, and further imply that men are incapable of parenting simply because of their gender.  

At the time, there was some debate around those decisions, with some commenting that the ASA had been heavy-handed in applying the new rules.  Yet, as the ASA has since been called on to consider whether more ads are in breach of the rules against gender stereotyping, a consistency in its approach is emerging.

Steps to success

In an update one year on from the implementation of the ban on harmful gender stereotypes, the ASA provided some helpful principles to consider when creating ads.  

  • First, the ban does not mean that ads cannot show people of either gender in stereotypical roles or with stereotypical characteristics (such as a woman cleaning or a man being courageous).  Instead, the ban aims to ensure that where such well-established stereotypes are relied on, they are handled with care.
  • Where gender stereotypes are exaggerated or absurd, with the effect that they become self-aware parodies of a commonly held perception, those are not likely to breach the rules.  The ASA’s ruling on a Heineken ad is an example in this vein. [4]
  • But humour will not necessarily save an ad where the laughter is directed at either a man or woman failing to perform a task as a result of their gender.  Moreover, an ad will not be exonerated simply because it is repeating phrases in the cultural zeitgeist.  PeoplePerHour could not defend an ad for its SEO services that declared: “YOU DO THE GIRL BOSS THING. WE’LL DO THE SEO THING.”   They argued that it was a reference to a popular culture movement. [5] But the ASA ruled that the portrayal of the woman running a business was patronising, and the use of the gendered term “girl boss” reinforced the perception that female bosses are a novelty and less authoritative than a man in the same position.
  • Ads that directly contrast male and female behaviours will probably find themselves on the wrong side of the line unless equal prominence and respect is given to the contributions of both genders.
  • Crucially, the ASA’s guidance on depicting gender stereotypes explains that when considering complaints, ads will be taken as a whole and in context when deciding on their likely impact on an audience.  Many of the ads that the ASA has found to be in breach of the rules on gender stereotypes are those that feature only one gender, as in the ruling against PC Specialist, whose ad for bespoke PCs featured men exclusively. [6] While there is nothing in the guidance prohibiting ads from featuring only one gender, it is more difficult for an advertiser to argue that the activity, characteristic or product depicted in the ad is not the preserve of only the depicted gender, when there is no clear counterbalance showing that this is not the case.
  • So, where both genders are featured, it is important for advertisers to portray men and women in similar roles or, as in Footcare International’s ad, in a situation that does not rely on the genders of the individuals featuring in it.  While the “Spin Scrubber” ad featured both women and men, and JML Direct tried to argue that because the ad showed shots of men there was no suggestion that a man was unable to undertake any of the cleaning tasks, there was no equivalence in the responsibility or feelings held by the men in relation to keeping their homes clean.  It did not help their response that the most visible male was shown cleaning outdoor furniture.

Making the right move

The instances in which the ASA has ruled that ads do not breach the ban on harmful gender stereotypes have shown it to be sympathetic to the challenge advertisers face.  For instance, its ruling on a Rightmove ad shows the nuanced approach the ASA tries to take. [7] 

The TV ad seemingly had all the hallmarks of playing to gender stereotypes: a father trying desperately to find some peace to read, while his four daughters play around him loudly, style his hair and make a mess while baking, and he has to take the (female) dog for a walk in the rain.  Ultimately, the family move home, and the beleaguered father is rewarded with a shed at the end of the garden.  

Rightmove’s defence against complaints was that the ad was intended to show that the family had outgrown their current home as well as the importance for parents, of either gender, to have time for themselves in the day.  The ASA considered the scenario presented, and while it considered that the ad did rely on gender stereotypes, the way in which the stereotypes were used was unlikely to cause harm on the basis that there was nothing in the ad itself to suggest that the father was unable to cope with childcare or did not participate in family life.  His daughters approached him to play, and he helped with their problems.  Furthermore, the ASA did not consider that the portrayal of the little girls was intended to show them as being particularly annoying or demanding as a result of their gender, and that a similar effect could have been achieved through showing boys being loud.  In this case, the presentation of gender stereotypes was balanced in the context of the ad as a whole, and was not found to be in breach.

Comment

Uses of gender stereotypes range from the seemingly innocuous – like the hapless Philadelphia-loving dads – to the more overtly questionable, such as the “Help her” or “Take advantage” options in the ad for online game Dream Zone: Interactive Story. [8] The ASA’s rulings demonstrate that both uses of gender stereotypes can be equally harmful.

Yet, by their very nature, stereotypes are widespread and hard to avoid.  The ASA recognises that difficulty and is sympathetic to advertisers that genuinely try to use stereotypes carefully.  Certainly, any concerns that the industry may have had that the ban would put an end to any use of stereotypes at all and would lead to overzealous rulings have proved to be unfounded.  Instead, the ASA has attempted to tackle deeply entrenched views, while also allowing for the context in which those views are presented.  

Furthermore, the conversation around harmful gender stereotypes has progressed.  Gender neutrality is garnering attention as an idea  – and, indeed, as a marketing tool.  Links between gender stereotypes and mental health and wellbeing (another area of focus for the ASA) have also come to the fore.  As gender neutrality becomes a more prevalent concept, it seems likely that the ASA will be asked to consider whether more ads perpetuate harmful or offensive gender stereotypes.

So it will be interesting to see how the ASA’s guidance evolves to keep pace with society’s changing tolerance for simplified, yet deeply embedded beliefs in relation to gender.

Helena FranklinHelena Franklin
Helena Franklin
Helena Franklin
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Associate
Sarah LovewellSarah Lovewell
Sarah Lovewell
Sarah Lovewell
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Trainee Solicitor

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