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Britain to Crack Down on Sexist Advertising

Britain to Crack Down on Sexist Advertising
Brian Oaster

The Advertising Standards Authority, a regulator of British marketing material, announced Tuesday that it is developing new regulations to address gender stereotypes in ads.

They released a report called “Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: A Report on Gender Stereotypes in Advertising.” The ASA report asks whether existing regulations are doing enough to prevent advertisers from using gender stereotypes that can be damaging to the public.

The short answer is ‘no.’ The better answer is that the ASA is doing well with addressing gender stereotypes, but there’s still room for improvement. Ella Smillie, Project Lead with ASA, explains:

“The research tells us… that we can do more to prevent harm from arising where ads depict people behaving in a certain way, or carrying out certain tasks that might be stereotypically associated with their gender.”

She says that although advertising is not the only influence on people’s views and perceptions, it is a factor. That makes them responsible as ad regulators to make sure ads don’t “mislead, harm or offend.”

The announcement already faces criticism from some who say that gender stereotypes are protected under free speech.

Despite Progress, Gender Stereotypes in Ads Persist

The report comes partially in response to advertisements like this baby formula commercial. The thirty second TV spot shows a baby girl in a pink room growing up to be a ballerina. It follows that image with a baby boy playing with an abacus and growing up to be a scientist.

Gender Stereotypes

Screenshot from baby formula ad

Perpetuating gender stereotypes like these, the ASA argues, limits the way people see themselves and the choices they make in life. This particularly harms women and young girls, they say.

Ads that unrealistically depict, objectify, and fetishize the female body are still too many to list. Although in recent years, many advertisers have caught on to the public’s demand for body type equality.

After Victoria’s Secret’s “Perfect Body” faux pas, lingerie brand Lane Bryant launched 2015’s #imnoangel campaign. It featured plus sized models instead of skinny ones. This and other movements have served to normalize ‘realistic’ and more varied body types in advertising.

Vanessa Friedman of the New York Times argued against banning skinny models, saying it would involve “subjective, and ultimately regressive, assumptions about what constitutes a positive female image.”

She writes: “One individual can have a seemingly normal body mass index and still have a tortured relationship with food and her physical self; another can look almost bony, and be fine. You can’t tell from the outside.”

The public conversation around gender stereotypes and body image in advertising continues, and the problems persist.

New Standards For Britain Are In Development

The ASA’s new regulations would target imagery that promotes gender stereotypes or mocks those who do not conform to them. It also concerns those that sexually objectify women or assert unhealthy body images.

“It would be inappropriate and unrealistic to prevent ads from, for instance, depicting a woman cleaning,” the report says. But new regulations would consider it problematic to show family members making a mess while only a woman is responsible for cleaning it up; or to suggest that a particular activity better suits a boy or a girl; or to depict a man as incompetent at simple household tasks or parenting.

There are some critical voices who find the ASA’s progress too slow. The above examples are still unanimously cisnormative, only representative of two fixed genders. Advertisers, of course, are always free to update their own standards. They can eradicate gender stereotypes even before the new ASA regulations take shape.

“We’ll be using everything we’ve learned in this report to draft new standards for advertisers,” says Smillie, “and we’ll be making announcements about that by the end of this year.”

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