International Women’s Day (8 March) celebrates the wide-ranging achievements of women across the globe, raises awareness of ongoing bias and inequality, and calls for action to progress gender equality.
The ASA takes a strong position on harmful or offensive depictions of gender. ASA rulings have also addressed objectification, which will always be problematic, and irresponsible depictions of body image. Since 2019, advertisers have also had to ensure that their ads do not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence (CAP Code rule 4.9 and BCAP Code rule 4.14). and CAP has published guidance which outlines the types of stereotypical depictions which are likely to be considered problematic, to help advertisers ensure that they are not contributing to this harm.
Roles and characteristics
Stereotypes about the roles and characteristics of women, either publicly or privately, still exist, and these should not be included in ads in a way which may perpetuate harm, or cause offence. Ads which depict stereotypical roles or characteristics in a way which suggests that they are always associated with one gender only, the only options available to one gender, or never carried out or displayed by another gender are likely to be problematic. The ASA has upheld multiple complaints about ads which perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes, such as the stereotypical view that women are less likely than men to run their own business, and are not skilled at using technology, and the stereotype that fathers are incapable of childcare, a role which is stereotypically attributed to women.
Marketers should avoid juxtaposing male and female roles and characteristics as this can give the impression that the roles and characteristics depicted are exclusively associated with one gender.
Ads which present women as sexual objects will be considered irresponsible and are likely to be problematic for featuring a harmful gender stereotype. Marketers must ensure that ads do not depict women in a way that effectively reduces them to physical and/or sexual objects, or suggests that women should aspire to be objectified.
Don’t use a model’s physical features as a way of drawing viewers’ attention to the ad, particularly (but not only) where they are unrelated to the product for example, using images of a woman in underwear to advertise fast food. Whilst featuring a degree of nudity in ads for products such as lingerie or swimwear may be acceptable, this nudity should not be gratuitous or overtly sexual, as this could invite viewers to view the women as sexual objects. Avoid using imagery that focuses only on particular body parts as this could be seen as reducing people to those parts alone - particularly if the person’s face is absent or obscured.
Depicting women wearing clothing in a sexual way which is incongruous with the product or context, for example by advertising outdoor boots by showing a woman hiking in the woods in her underpants, is likely to be considered to be objectifying and stereotyping women as sexual objects. Similarly, focusing on a model’s body more than the product advertised is also likely to be problematic.
This rule will apply to animated characters in the same way, if the effect of the animation presents people as sexual objects.
Marketers must ensure that their ads do not exploit people’s insecurities about their body image, or suggest that happiness or wellbeing depends on conforming to a particular physical appearance, or gender stereotypical body type or physical features. Some sectors, such as the diet and beauty sectors, may need to take particular care.
Marketers must not portray particular body types in an irresponsible manner or present an unhealthy body image as aspirational. Using slim models is not necessarily a problem in and of itself – what matters is the particular presentation in an ad. Marketers should make sure that models are not presented in a way that makes them appear underweight or unhealthy, and should avoid images in which the model’s bones are prominently visible, as this could be considered irresponsible for promoting an unhealthy body image.
If you would like bespoke advice on your non-broadcast advertising, the Copy Advice team is here to help.