England’s (Terrible) Plan to Destroy Gender Stereotypes in Advertising

Should an ad be banned for depicting men as slobs?

July 18, 2017 9:00 am

Should advertisements that make light of outdated stereotypes (Men can’t do the laundry! Women belong in the kitchen!) be banned?

Because it might happen in England.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the industry regulator of ads in the UK, is taking on gender stereotypes. In their new report “Depictions, Perceptions and Harm,” the organization identified six categories of advertising stereotypes — roles, characteristics, mocking people for not conforming to stereotypes, sexualization, objectification and body image — and proposed regulations to combat them.

The section of the report dedidated to examples of ads that might no longer be allowed on UK television mentions “an ad which depicts family members creating a mess while a woman has sole responsibility for cleaning it up” and “an ad that features a man trying and failing to undertake simple parental or household tasks.” The text also calls out ads aimed at children that showcase little girls wanting to be ballerinas and boys wanting to be scientists.

While the ASA study admits it would be “inappropriate and unrealistic” to stop ads from depicting, say, a woman cleaning or a man bungling cleaning, it does hope to attack and deter “problematic stereotyping.”

There are two ways to look at this: 1) Hooray for a national organization that recognizes the harm of stereotypes! Let’s continue to discuss. And 2) There is no way this should be allowed in its current form.

Kudos to regulations for ads that are blatantly dishonest, promote illegal behavior (say, underage drinking) or show harmful behavior (as Quartz notes, the ASA already prohibits ads that showcase women who are dangerously thin). Perhaps some additional guidelines on ads during children’s programming should be in play.

But the proposed regulations here sound an awful lot like a slippery slope toward outright censorship, and doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for irony, parody or subversive messaging: Should Homer Simpson be banned from ads, even though The Simpsons are satirizing the exact behavior this report wants to prohibit? And aren’t some stereotypes — like, say, men should clean the house more — fairly innocuous and accurate? (One unscientific study only pertaining to the behavior of this writer points to yes.)

Otherwise, we think brands that peddle outdated and distasteful stereotypes should be dealt with the same way they always have: with public ridicule. Punishing corporations for making stupid decisions is one of the only things that social media is actually useful for.

Just ask Pepsi.

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