In June 2019, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) announced it was banning adverts featuring “harmful gender stereotypes” or those which are likely to cause “serious or widespread offence”.

The new rule was introduced because the advertising watchdog believed certain gender portrayals could play a part in “limiting people’s potential”.

One of the most controversial advertisements in recent time is Aptamil formula milk ‘Babies of the Future. It portrays baby girls growing up to be a ballerina and two baby boys who have futures as an engineer and mountain climber.

The advert sparked multiple complaints to the ASA. However, following an investigation, it was concluded that no further action could be taken as the advertisement did not break any current rules.

The Aptamil advert went on to form part of the ASA’s review prior to drafting the new rules. Focus groups were asked to give their opinion on the advertisement.

The ASA found some parents:

“felt strongly about the gender-based aspirations shown in this advert specifically noting the stereotypical future professions of the boys and girls shown.
“These parents queried why these stereotypes were needed, feeling that they lacked diversity of gender roles and did not represent real life.”

The ASA said the review had found evidence suggesting that harmful stereotypes could “restrict the choices, aspirations and opportunities of children, young people and adults and these stereotypes can be reinforced by some advertising, which plays a part in unequal gender outcomes”.

What are the new rules on gender stereotype advertising?

CAPs Regulatory Statement on Gender Advertising, which should be read in conjunction with the Advertising Guidance on Depicting Gender Stereotypes adds a new rule to the advertising code, which states:

“[Advertisements] must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.”

The rule does not seek to ban gender stereotypes completely, but to “identify specific harms that should be prevented”.

The following scenarios featured in an advert could trigger an investigation:
• A man relaxing, children making a mess around the house, and a woman left with sole responsibility for cleaning up.
• People failing to manage certain tasks simply because of their gender; i.e. a man being unable to cook a meal or a woman having difficulty with DIY.
• A person with a physique that does not match an ideal stereotypically associated with their gender shown as not being successful in their professional, social, or romantic life because of their physique.
• Any ads which show new mothers as prioritising looking perfect or having a spotless home over their own emotional wellbeing.
• A man being ridiculed for taking on traditionally ‘feminine’ roles.

Furthermore, any advertisement that seeks to emphasise the contrast between a boy’s stereotypical personality (e.g. daring) with a girl’s stereotypical personality (e.g. caring) needs to be handled with care.

The new rules do not prevent advertisers showing women cleaning or men doing DIY. Also, it will not prevent the use of showing glamourous, attractive people leading healthy lifestyles or stop advertisements only using one type of gender for products specifically aimed at them. However, advertisers will need to think very carefully about the message an advertisement is sending. This is particularly pertinent with adverts aimed at or including children and adolescence.

In a press release, Guy Parker, Chief Executive of the Advertising Standards Authority, said:

“Our evidence shows how harmful gender stereotypes in ads can contribute to inequality in society, with costs for all of us. Put simply, we found that some portrayals in ads can, over time, play a part in limiting people’s potential. It’s in the interests of women and men, our economy and society that advertisers steer clear of these outdated portrayals, and we’re pleased with how the industry has already begun to respond”.

In summary

CAP will carry out a review of the new rule in 12 months’ time. Advertisers and marketers in the meantime will need to review any proposed creative projects to ensure they comply with the regulations to avoid reputational damage and sanctions resulting from a breach.

Tanveer Qureshi is a Legal 500 barrister, specialising in ASA compliance, business to business fraud, health and safety, food standards, civil litigation, and corporate crime. If you require legal representation, please contact directly on 020 3870 3187.

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Tanveer is a specialist in criminal and regulatory law. He has been recognised by the Times Newspaper as a legal star of the future and ranked in Legal 500 as a recommended barrister. Tanveer writes regularly on topics ranging from financial crime to regulation and terrorism law.
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