U.K. Bans Gender Stereotypes in Ads

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Credit: Protein World

The U.K.'s Advertising Standards Authority has vowed to take a tougher line on gender stereotypes in ads, arguing that that they are harmful to society.

The watchdog is pledging to eliminate, for example, ads that show women being left with sole responsibility for cleaning up a family mess, while men fail at simple household tasks.

Currently, the ASA bans ads for inappropriate sexualization (like this American Apparel ad that sexualized schoolgirls) and for promoting unhealthily thin ideals (as Yves Saint Laurent did a couple of years ago), but gender stereotypes have often slipped through the self-regulatory net.

Ads like Protein World's "Beach Body Ready" effort last summer, which elicited hundreds of complaints from the public and an outcry on social media -- including a petition signed by 60,000 people -- were judged by the ASA not to "cause widespread offense." Protein World got in trouble only for overclaiming on its weight loss effects.

But this type of gender stereotyping, where women are expected to look or act a certain way, will face more rigorous vetting starting in 2018, when the new rules will come into effect.

Guy Parker, CEO of the ASA, said in a statement, "While advertising is only one of many factors that contribute to unequal gender outcomes, tougher advertising standards can play an important role in tackling inequalities and improving outcomes for individuals, the economy and society as a whole."

In the week that naming the first female actor to play Doctor Who caused huge controversy, the ASA might find it has a long way to go to drag British society into the 21st century.

Juliet Haygarth, CEO of London agency Beattie McGuinness Bungay, supports the ASA's move. She said, "Awareness should run as a thread through the process of creating communications. We can't, as agencies, talk about contributing to culture and then take a step back from our responsibilities. We shape minds and attitudes and opinions, and we must not confirm negative ones."

The new rules will start to bring the U.K. into line with other countries – including Norway, Spain, Finland, Ireland, Germany, India, Italy, South Africa, Canada and France – where gender stereotyping in ads is already actively discouraged. The ASA looked at 28 countries and found that 24 of them restrict gender stereotypes in advertising.

In the U.S., the Children's Advertiser Review Unit has guidelines in place to ensure that "advertisers should avoid social stereotyping and appeals to prejudice," but there is no equivalent guidance for advertising to all ages.

The ASA's move comes soon after the United Nations launched the Unstereotype Alliance, backed by Unilever, Procter & Gamble, WPP, Diageo, Google and Facebook, to challenge gender stereotypes in advertising on a global scale.

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