Note: This advice is given by the CAP Executive about non-broadcast advertising. It does not constitute legal advice. It does not bind CAP, CAP advisory panels or the Advertising Standards Authority.

On 14 December 2018, CAP announced the introduction of new rules on gender stereotyping in ads, and on 14 June 2019, Code rules 4.9 (CAP Code) and 4.14 (BCAP Code) were introduced. These rules state that ads ‘must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence’ This followed a review of gender stereotyping in ads by the ASA, which indicated that certain kinds of gender stereotypes can negatively reinforce how people think they should look and behave, and how others think they should look and behave, due to their gender, which may have harmful consequences for individuals and for society.

The rule is supported by additional guidance: Advertising Guidance on depicting gender stereotypes likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence (the guidance). The guidance clarifies that the rule is not intended to prevent ads from featuring: glamorous, attractive, successful, aspirational or healthy people or lifestyles; one gender only; or gender stereotypes when they are used as a means to challenge their negative effects. It addresses five different potentially harmful categories, and sets out examples of scenarios which are likely to be problematic for each.

Gender stereotypical roles and characteristics

The ASA has investigated and upheld complaints about multiple ads on the basis that those ads featured gender stereotypical roles or characteristics in a way which breached the rule.

Gender-stereotypical roles include occupations or positions usually associated with a specific gender; for example, women being primarily responsible for childcare and men being responsible for financial security. Gender-stereotypical characteristics include attributes or behaviours usually associated with a specific gender, such as sensitivity and rationality. It is not inherently problematic for ads to feature people with stereotypical characteristics or undertaking stereotypical roles, but they are likely to be problematic if they suggest that these stereotypical roles or characteristics are:

  • always uniquely associated with one gender;
  • the only options available to one gender; or
  • never carried out or displayed by another gender.

The ASA ruled against an ad for search engine optimisation services which included the text "YOU DO THE GIRL BOSS THING. WE'LL DO THE SEO THING" following complaints that it perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes by depicting a woman running a business in a patronising way.  The advertiser explained that “girl boss” was a reference to a book, popular culture movement and professional network, but the ASA considered that many people were unlikely to be familiar with it.  As such, the ASA considered that the gendered term “girl boss”, without any other context, reinforced the impression that a female boss was an exception to the norm, and the use of “girl” to refer to an adult woman reinforced the impression that a female boss was a novelty, and was less serious than a man in the same position. The ASA also considered that, in contrast with the gendered reference in the first part of the sentence, “We’ll do the SEO thing” (referring to search engine optimisation) was likely to be understood to mean that females in particular needed help with IT matters, which reinforced a well-established stereotype that women were not skilled at using technology (People Per Hour Ltd t/a PeoplePerHour 8 January 2020).

Using humour

The ASA is likely to consider stereotypes from the perspective of the group of individuals being stereotyped, and the use of humour is unlikely to mitigate against the types of harm or serious or widespread offence identified in this guidance.

The ASA upheld complaints about an ad for a food product following complaints that it depicted fathers as being incapable of childcare, a role which is stereotypically attributed to women. The ad depicted two new dads distracted as their babies went round a food conveyer belt. In combination with the opening scene, in which one of the babies was handed over by the mother to the father, and the final scene, in which one of the fathers said “Let’s not tell mum”. The ASA considered the 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. Whilst the ad depicted this in a humorous way, the ASA did not consider that the use of humour mitigated the effect of the harmful stereotype, but that it was central to it, because the humour derived from the audience’s familiarity with the gender stereotype being portrayed (Mondelez UK Ltd 14 August 2019).

Take care with depicting contrasting stereotypes

The guidance also states that ads which directly contrast male and female stereotypical roles or characteristics should be handled with care. A complaint about an ad which appeared to directly contrast images of men in extraordinary environments, carrying out adventurous activities, with a woman who appeared passively engaged in a stereotypical care-giving role was upheld. The ASA considered that the ad directly contrasted stereotypical male and female roles and characteristics in a manner that gave the impression that they were exclusively associated with one gender (Volkswagen Group UK Ltd, 14 August 2019).

Not all ads that depict stereotypical roles, or characteristics, will be considered problematic by the ASA, and the overall impression given by the ad will be considered. In contrast to the Volkswagen ad discussed above, the ASA did not uphold complaints about a TV ad for Buxton bottled water, which featured men and women occupied in activities stereotypically associated with their gender: a female ballet dancer, a male drummer and a male rower. Whilst the ASA acknowledged that these activities were stereotypically associated with a particular gender, they noted that each skill depicted was shown to be equally difficult and demanding, and considered that the ad was less focussed on the activities of each character, and more focussed on their characteristics - equal levels of drive and talent which had allowed them to excel. Therefore, in this case the ASA did not consider that the ad perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes, and concluded that it did not breach the Code (Nestlé UK Ltd, 14 August 2019).

Similarly, complaints that an ad for Foster’s lager perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes by implying that men wanted to avoid commitment while women were desperate to settle down were not upheld by the ASA. Whilst the ASA acknowledged that these were well established and contrasting stereotypes, they considered that because the ad featured familiar characters who formed part of a long-running campaign who provided advice that was exaggerated, unrealistic and absurd, the ad was likely to be understood to be a self-aware parody of a specific characteristic.  The ASA concluded that the ad did not suggest that those characteristics of being commitment-phobic or keen to settle down were always uniquely associated with men or women respectively. (Heineken Enterprise Ltd 18 September 2019).

Other stereotypical depictions

Whilst the complaints received and rulings about Code rules 4.9 (CAP Code) and 4.14 (BCAP Code) have so far been focused on the depiction of stereotypical roles and characteristics, the guidance also identifies other potentially harmful categories, and advertisers must ensure that ads do not portray harmful gender stereotypes which may fit into any of these categories:

Pressure to conform to an idealised gender stereotypical body shape or physical features. Ads may feature glamorous, attractive, successful, aspirational or healthy people but they should take care to avoid suggesting that an individual’s happiness or emotional wellbeing should depend on conforming to an idealised gender-stereotypical body shape or physical features.

Ads aimed at or featuring children. Ads can be targeted at and feature a specific gender but should take care not to explicitly convey that a particular children’s product, pursuit, activity, including choice of play or career, is inappropriate for one or another gender.

Featuring potentially vulnerable people. Ads should be sensitive to the emotional and physical well-being of vulnerable groups of people who may be under pressure to conform to particular gender stereotypes. For example, an ad aimed at new mums which suggests that looking attractive or keeping a home pristine is a priority over other factors such as their emotional wellbeing is likely to be problematic.

Featuring people who don’t conform to a gender stereotype. Ads should avoid mocking or belittling people for not conforming to gender stereotypes, including in a context that is intended to be humorous.

See also:

Social responsibility: body image

Offence: sexualisation and objectification

Offence: use of stereotypes

Offence: sexual orientation and gender identity

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