Gender stereotyping and the changing face of advertising

Young father carrying and feeding his newborn baby son
Jozef Polc / Alamy Stock Photo

Get up to date with the latest advertising guidelines around gender stereotyping and explore how far we’ve come in the advertising journey over the years. We’re taking a look at gender stereotyping in advertising, at the impact it’s had and continues to have on society and how it’s continuing to change over time.

In July 2016, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) launched a research project into gender stereotyping in advertisements after being alerted to the “increasing political and public debate on equality issues”. Working with the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP), they produced a report called ‘Deceptions, Perceptions, and Harm. The report found that gender stereotyping “can lead to mental, physical and social harm which can limit the potential of groups and individuals”. These harmful effects are felt not only by adults, but also by the younger generations, having the potential shape and influence the ideals that children develop of gender roles in society.

So, what are the new guidelines?

In 2015, the ASA received more than 37,000 complaints that resulted in the ASA either banning or forcing changes on more than 3,500 ads in the UK.

Now the CAP, the body that writes UK advertising code, are calling for new, tougher standards to be introduced to combat gender stereotyping. The new guidelines will limit children’s exposure to outdated views about men, women, boys and girls. It’ll give them the opportunity to grow up in a more accepting world where gender doesn’t determine what they can and can’t be interested in.

The move for stricter regulations comes soon after the United Nations launched the Unstereotype Alliance supported by some of the world’s leading brands including Unilever, Procter & Gamble, Google and Facebook. By the end of 2017, we can expect CAP to report on the changes it wants the ASA to implement in 2018. This will bring the UK into line with 24 other countries who are already pushing towards more diverse and accepting global advertising.

What kinds of adverts will be seen as a ‘problem’?

6 types of gender stereotyping in advertising are outlined by the ASA and CAP:

  • Roles: jobs or positions usually attributed to a certain gender
  • Characteristics: certain actions, behaviours or looks that relate to a certain gender
  • Mocking people for not conforming to stereotype: behaving or looking in a non-stereotypical way
  • Sexualisation: of a man or woman – showing the person in a sexualised way
  • Objectification: depicting someone in a way that focuses on their body or body parts.
  • Body image: depicting an unhealthy body image.

There are 3 key types of advertisement that are likely to be classed as problematic, so the guidelines at the moment include avoiding adverts that do the following 3 things. We’ve added some examples for each point to show the types of images that conform to a stereotype, and those that embrace the new guidelines.

  1. Depict family members creating a mess while a woman has sole responsibility for cleaning it up
    Stereotype: It’s a woman’s job to clean up

    Teenage girl and her mother
    hanie / Alamy Stock Photo

    New guidelines: The whole family help out with cleaning

    Children Helping Parents With Domestic Chores In Kitchen
    MBI / Alamy Stock Photo
  2. Suggest a specific activity is inappropriate for boys or men because it is stereotypically associated with girls or women, or vice-versa
    Stereotype: Football is only for males

    three nice Young boys with soccer ball on a sport uniform
    Louis-Paul st-onge Louis / Alamy Stock Photo

    New guidelines: Women and men can take part in the same activities

    Men and women soldiers at basic combat training rest during boot camp at Fort Jackson September 27, 2013 in Columbia, SC.
    Richard Ellis / Alamy Stock Photo
  3. Show a man trying and struggling or failing to undertake simple parental or household tasks e.g. doing the washing up or feeding the kids
    Stereotype: Men don’t know how to take care of their children

    Father and children in pajamas in kitchen
    Hero Images Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

    New guidelines: Men are fully capable of doing the housework and looking after their children

    Father and daughters folding laundry in living room
    Hero Images Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Why are these changes so important to image buyers or to creatives?

The main aim of any advertisement is to get the person viewing it to understand and align with the product or brand being presented – we know from years of research that visuals are one of the most effective ways of doing this. The images a company or brand uses in their campaigns are most often the part that resonates most with the audience, so the images you use need to give the right impression. So, with these new guidelines coming into place, it’s important to make sure you’re using images that reflect diversity and gender equality to show your brand’s positive approach to the changing views in society.

There has been an uplift in the number of adverts that feature a range of family dynamics, girls and boys taking part in the same activities, and men and women working alongside each other in physically challenging jobs like the army. Depicting gender equality and showing that gender doesn’t determine what a person can or can’t be interested in is one of the crucial messages that businesses need to portray in their advertising. This will help them fall in line with the latest guidelines and make their advertisements more appealing to the changing society of today.

Father lifting baby son to tree branches
Blend Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Moving towards the future

It’s not going to be an overnight change, but we’re already starting to see retailers and brands taking steps towards a less stereotypical and gender-limiting world of advertisements. It’s important to remember that this move isn’t to prevent gender-targeted advertising, but instead aims to encourage more positive and nurturing content that boosts self-esteem rather than negatively impacting it.

One brilliant example of this kind of content is Sport England’s recent #ThisGirlCan campaign. It’s gender-targeted in that it focuses on women, but it empowers the gender. It embraces diversity in terms of fitness levels, ethnicities, ages and sporting abilities, delivering a positive message to all women that no matter who they are they can get fit and better themselves.

Another positive move in the right direction was seen in early September this year. John Lewis made the headlines when it announced its gender neutral clothing range for children. This marks a huge step forwards in UK advertising and M&S is rumoured to be following closely behind. Now, being the first retailer to declare that you’re not going to enforce gender stereotypes is a bold move, and it hasn’t come without resistance.

John Lewis has been on the receiving end of some pretty angry social media outbursts from the public, with the move being described as “a disappointment”, “pure sh*te” and a “worrying sign of the times”. Check out this article from The Independent for some more reactions from the public.

There’s still a long way to go, but with stricter guidelines and tougher legislation, there’s hope for not only the future of advertising, but the futures of the younger generations growing up to be more accepting of diversity in the world.

Read the full ASA and CAP report here


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