When one Twitter user tweeted, “Absolutely ridiculous. Control state, dictated by the elite.” Were they talking about:
a) British politics
b) American politics
c) The Advertising Standards Authority?
The answer is, of course, the third option. And the comment follows the UK ad regulator’s decision to ban ads from Volkswagen and Philadelphia for portraying “harmful” gender stereotypes – the first since the new rules came into effect two months ago.
Elsewhere on Twitter, the ASA has been likened to the Ministry of Truth from George Orwell’s 1984 and accused of having no understanding of society outside the media bubble. Complainants, meanwhile, have been branded “snowflakes”.
Those in the ad industry have raised their eyebrows too. The IPA describes the rulings as “surprising” and “concerning”, while ISBA claims they are likely to cause “confusion” in the industry over whether, and if so how, ads are able to feature people going about their daily lives. Clearcast, the body responsible for vetting ads before they are broadcast, says it is “naturally disappointed”.
While it feels like the ASA’s definition of ‘harm’ is in need of a rethink, as well as what it means to cause ‘serious’ or ‘widespread offence’, the Philadelphia ad quite clearly portrays a very particular gender stereotype. Whether bundled up in a ‘comical’ ad or not, stereotypes around men not being able to look after children properly are old and outdated, just like women not being able to park cars or do DIY.
The Volkswagen ad’s gender stereotype is perhaps slightly less obvious, partly shown by the fact it only received three complaints compared with Philadelphia’s 128. Where this ad falls short is that it only shows men doing “adventurous” activities while one woman sleeps and another sits with a book next to a pram. This would perhaps be less problematic if the ad featured female para-athletes and astronauts as well, but there is a clear contrast between the active roles assigned to men and passive roles to women.
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Interestingly, analysis from market research firm System1 shows the Philadelphia ad scored 3.4 stars in terms of positive emotional response – the best score the Mondelez-owned brand has achieved in more than two years. While there is a small rise in negative emotion when the Dads put the baby in danger, that is also when positive emotions peak, which suggests people might actually quite like the bumbling dad stereotype.
Volkswagen, meanwhile, scored only 2.4 stars, with a steady climb in positive emotion when the astronauts appear followed by a dip in happiness when it shifts to the woman with a pram.
System1’s Tom Ewing says while the Philadelphia ad “very blatantly” contravenes ASA guidelines, the score suggests it still resonates with the wider public and makes for an effective ad.
“But that doesn’t mean that the stereotypes aren’t harmful or that the ads don’t contravene ASA guidelines,” he says. “’Bad’ ads can get strong positive responses: people loved the PG Tips chimp ads in their day and it’s now broadly accepted that the way the chimps were treated wasn’t OK.
“The wider question is whether advertising should reflect culture or lead it. If its role is to reflect culture, we’ll see harmful stereotypes stop being effective in advertising as they become unacceptable in the wider culture. If its role is to lead culture, then the ASA is saying useless-Dad stereotypes are harmful now even though people enjoy them in ads, and is betting that it’s ahead of the cultural game on that.”
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Both ads undoubtedly portray lazy stereotypes on various ends of the spectrum, but has the ASA gone too far?
Geraint Lloyd-Taylor, an advertising expert at law firm Lewis Silkin, says it is concerning to see the ASA take on the role of the “morality police”.
“It has let its zeal to enforce the new rules override its common sense in this first batch of rulings,” Lloyd-Taylor says. “The ASA seems to be out of sync with society in general. As it stands, the ASA’s definition of ‘harm’ is unworkable and urgently needs to be clarified.”
The ASA itself has acknowledged that while there are numerous examples where gender stereotypes are harmful, the evidence doesn’t suggest they are always problematic.
Ads that depict men and women in gender-stereotypical activities that may contribute to pay inequality, cause psychological harm or sexualise women are unquestionably problematic and should be banned.
The question here is whether ads such as these from Philadelphia and Volkswagen, which are lazy in their portrayals, cause the same kind of ‘harm’. Can we laugh and poke fun at outdated stereotypes without perpetuating them in a detrimental way? Is there such a thing as a harmless stereotype?
The first hand is always a tricky and divisive one to lay, and this is not a black and white issue. What the ASA will need to do now is be consistent in its rulings around what constitutes “harmful” gender stereotypes to ensure it sets a clear industry benchmark.
It should think about reconsidering its definition of what it is to cause “real world harm” or serious or widespread offence too, so as to not trivialise its purpose and so it is taken seriously as an advertising body that is in touch with the society it serves.
In the meantime, let’s hope there are no babies going round on conveyor belts while dad eats a bagel. Bumbling buffoon.