Gender Stereotyping in Adverts: How Fine is the Line?

Should there be stricter measures in place for communication specialists to follow? We examine some recent examples and discuss the potential impact on our culture.

Earlier this year the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned two TV ads for featuring harmful gender stereotypes. The first was for Philadelphia Cheese which showed two fathers leaving a baby on a restaurant conveyor belt, and the second was a Volkswagen ad which showed two men being adventurous and a woman sitting on a bench by a pram. The ASA ruled that the cream cheese ad “relied on the stereotype that men were unable to care for children as well as women and implied that the fathers had failed to look after the children properly because of their gender.”

However, Mondelez UK argued that they intentionally chose to use two male figures to avoid the stereotype that only new mothers are responsible for children and felt “extremely disappointed” with the decision for the advert to be banned.

The choice to use two male father-figure roles for one child could be a cause for celebration, in terms of how far TV ads have come in acknowledging different family situations, yet 128 people complained that the advert portrayed a harmful stereotype. We are finally evolving as a society to accept stereotypes beyond only one type of family (a mother, father and two children).

The introduction of these rules forces commercial advertisers to think about the impact they are having on audiences, especially the younger generation. The ASA conducted a review of gender stereotypes in adverts and found that harmful stereotypes can restrict the choices, aspirations and opportunities of children, young people and adults, and that these stereotypes can be reinforced by advertising, which plays a part in unequal gender outcomes. The ASA report calls for tougher standards to restrict adverts depicting roles that mock people for not conforming to stereotypes.

Many companies under scrutiny have denied being intentionally offensive in their adverts; even when attempting to step outside the gender stereotyping box, they still result in following another gender stereotype. Have we as a culture become too sensitive or are the new tougher standards justified? For example, the Volkswagen advert claimed to be avoiding the stereotype of parents being panicked and stressed when around children, by showing a mother calm and relaxed next to the pram. However, the issue isn’t the woman being shown in a mothering role, but rather, the juxtaposing images that follow, of two men who are seen to be partaking in adventurous activities in the same advert. Companies producing these types of advert are not representing real-life situations and this results in the public speaking up when these are spread across our social media feeds and broadcast onto our TV screens. In a similar vein, it is tactless for print media to run certain adverts alongside certain articles – for example a firearm advert alongside a school shooting article, which is also likely to generate complaints.  

The new rules developed by the ASA are a step in the right direction for the UK and show that we are more progressive as a country in comparison to some other cultures. By putting these rules into action, the ASA is asking companies to question what they are producing and if they are being inclusive. In 2018 Louisa Tam wrote about an independent analysis of advertising in China, India and Indonesia which showed that 62% of adverts do not portray women in significant roles and only two% put them in aspirational or leadership positions. The variations of gender roles in different cultures can provide a challenge for some companies, especially global consumer goods companies that advertise internationally. It is important for global consumer brands to recognise that one size really doesn’t fit all if we want to start making a bigger stand against gender stereotypes.

It is difficult for any company to ensure its branding and communications make everyone happy, especially when it comes to sensitive issues like gender stereotypes.  

These findings are a reminder that although the advertising industry still has far to go in terms of gender stereotypes, there have been significant changes, especially in the UK. What is clear is that there is still a lot of work to be done, especially in terms of firms producing ad content that is progressive and forward-thinking.

If you would like to discuss your branding and communications strategy, please don’t hesitate to contact our team at Shooting Star.