BackgroundOn 14 December 2018, CAP announced the introduction of a new rule on gender stereotyping in ads, and on 14 June 2019, Code rules 4.9 (CAP Code) and 4.14 (BCAP Code) were introduced. Those rules – which followed a review during which the ASA carried out research into gender stereotyping in ads - stated that ads “must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence”.
The rules were supported by additional guidance, “Advertising guidance on depicting gender stereotypes likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence”, which identified the gender stereotypes and ways of presenting gender stereotypes likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence. The guidance set out that a wide body of evidence showed that that certain types of gender stereotypes, and ways of depicting gender stereotypes, could negatively reinforce how people think they should look and behave, and how others think they should look and behave, due to their gender. This can lower their self-esteem and limit their aspirations and ability to progress in key aspects of their personal and professional lives, with harmful consequences for them and for society as a whole.
A TV ad for the Volkswagen eGolf, seen on 14 June 2019, opened with a shot of a woman and a man in a tent. The woman was asleep and the man switched off the light and closed the tent, which was shown to be fixed to a sheer cliff face. The following scene depicted two male astronauts floating in a space ship. Text stated "When we learn to adapt". The next scene showed a male para-athlete with a prosthetic leg doing the long jump. Text stated "we can achieve anything". The final scene showed a woman sitting on a bench next to a pram. A Volkswagen eGolf passed by quietly. The woman was shown looking up from her book. Text stated "The Golf is electric. The 100% electric eGolf".
Three complainants, who believed that the ad perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes by showing men engaged in adventurous activities in contrast to a woman in a care-giving role, challenged whether it breached the Code.
Volkswagen Group UK Ltd said the core message of the ad was centred on the ability of the human spirit to adapt to challenges and change brought about by circumstances. They illustrated that through a number of different scenarios featuring various characters so that as diverse an audience as possible would be able to identify with the message. They did not think that a climber, astronaut, or athlete competing in a Paralympic sport were gender stereotypical roles or occupations.
They said that the characters were shown performing actions that were not stereotypical to one gender; for example, the female climber was sleeping, the first astronaut was shown eating an apple, the second astronaut was reaching for a drinks bottle, etc. The astronauts were performing mundane tasks in an extreme environment and could not be said to be taking part in an adventurous activity any more than the female climber. It was not the specific acts that were adventurous, but the environments they were in. The fact that the female climber was asleep could be said to demonstrate not that she was passive, but that she was relaxed and comfortable in a hostile environment.
The ad moved between different environments, but its focus was not contrasting those environments or suggesting that that some were more difficult to adapt to than others. They included the final scene of the woman in the park as a relatable example of adaptation to change, as they believed that welcoming a newborn into the family was a life changing experience that would be shared by many viewers, regardless of gender. The scene served a secondary purpose of illustrating the reduction of engine noise in an electric vehicle.
Upheld The BCAP Code stated “Advertisements must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence”. The joint CAP and BCAP “Advertising guidance on depicting gender stereotypes likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence” said that gender-stereotypical roles included occupations or positions usually associated with a specific gender, while gender-stereotypical characteristics included attributes or behaviours usually associated with a specific gender. The guidance stated “Ads that directly contrast male and female stereotypical roles or characteristics need to be handled with care. An ad that depicts a man being adventurous juxtaposed with a woman being delicate or dainty is unlikely to be acceptable”. It further stated that ads may feature people undertaking gender-stereotypical roles, but they should take care to avoid suggesting that stereotypical roles or characteristics were always uniquely associated with one gender; the only options available to one gender; or never carried out or displayed by another gender.
The first scene of the ad showed both a man and a woman in a tent, panning out to show that it was fixed to the side of a cliff and therefore implying that they had both climbed up the steep rock face. However, the woman was shown sleeping, by contrast with the man in the scene. Furthermore, due to the short duration of the shot and its focus on the movement of the man, it was likely that many viewers would not pick up on the fact that it featured a woman, as was the case with the complainants.
The ad then showed two male astronauts carrying out tasks in space and a male para-athlete doing the long jump. We considered that viewers would be likely to see the activities depicted as extraordinary and adventurous – scientific and career-based in the case of the astronauts and physical in the case of the athlete. That impression was reinforced by the claim “When we learn to adapt…we can achieve anything”. While we noted that a third astronaut appeared in the background, the image was very brief and not prominent. We considered that many viewers would not notice the presence of a third person, and if they did, the image was insufficiently clear to distinguish their gender. The first two scenes both more prominently featured male characters.
While the majority of the ad was focussed on a theme of adapting to difficult circumstances and achievement, the final scene showed a woman sitting on a bench and reading, with a pram by her side. We acknowledged that becoming a parent was a life changing experience that required significant adaptation, but taking care of children was a role that was stereotypically associated with women. In context, the final scene (the only one that featured the product) gave the impression that the scenario had been used to illustrate the adaptation and resulting characteristic of the car – so quiet that it did not wake the baby or register with the mother – rather than as a further representation of achievement, particularly as the setting was relatively mundane compared to the other scenarios.
Taking into account the overall impression of the ad, we considered that viewers were likely to focus on the occupations of the characters featured in the ad and observe a direct contrast between how the male and female characters were depicted.
By juxtaposing images of men in extraordinary environments and carrying out adventurous activities with women who appeared passive or engaged in a stereotypical care-giving role, we 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. We concluded that the ad presented gender stereotypes in way that was likely to cause harm and therefore breached the Code.
The ad breached BCAP Code rule 4.14 (Harm and offence).
The ad must not appear again in the form complained about. We told Volkswagen Group UK Ltd to ensure their advertising did not present gender stereotypes in a way that was likely to cause harm, including by directly contrasting male and female roles and characteristics in a way that implied they were uniquely associated with one gender.