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Focus on Regulation

Gender stereotyping in UK advertising – staying on the right side of the line

Unlike some other European countries, the UK does not currently have specific rules prohibiting or restricting gender stereotyping in advertising. To date, complaints about ads featuring stereotypical gender roles or characteristics have been brought based on the requirement in the UK non-broadcast and broadcast advertising codes (the CAP Code and BCAP Code) that advertising must be socially responsible and not cause serious or widespread offence, and the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has generally not upheld such complaints.

Based on the conclusions of the ASA’s recent report “Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising“, new stronger rules on ads featuring stereotypical gender roles or characteristics are going to be introduced in the UK.

The Report

The ASA report was triggered in part by the “Beach Body Ready” ads, which received 380 complaints. The report concluded that, although most ads are getting it right, there is strong evidence that the way some ads portray gender roles and characteristics can affect the choices, aspirations and opportunities of children, young people and adults.

Upcoming changes

In response to the report, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) is developing new rules and guidance on ads that feature stereotypical gender roles or characteristics, which are expected to be published by the end of this year. The new rules are not anticipated to lead to a dramatic change in the current position, but are intended to “smooth the rougher edges” of the current rules.

Under the new rules, ads will not be automatically in breach of the rules because they contain gender stereotypes that are offensive to some people (for example, showing a woman doing household chores or a man doing DIY). Instead, the rules will aim to target ads that go significantly beyond this, for example by:

  • suggesting that it is a woman’s sole responsibility to tidy up after her family;
  • implying that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it is usually for men and vice versa;
  • suggesting that men cannot do simple parental or household tasks because they are men; or
  • mocking people for not conforming to gender stereotypes.

The ASA has stressed that this is just a first step and further announcements on this topic are expected. Meanwhile, advertisers must comply with the current rules to ensure that advertising is socially responsible and will not cause harm or serious or widespread offence. Also, under the Equalities Act 2010 particular care must also be taken to avoid discriminating by reference to gender.

A number of the world’s biggest companies, including Mars, Facebook, Google, J&J, IPG and WPP, have already signalled their intention to move away from outdated stereotypes in advertising by signing up to the UN Women initiative, the “Unstereotype Alliance”.

You can read the ASA’s report in full here.