Thursday 19 April 2018

John McGee: Good riddance to gender stereotyping in adland

John McGee

When the definitive history of the advertising industry is written, there should be a chapter on how the marketing industry has cynically exploited and objectified women while reinforcing lazy gender stereotypes in much of its advertising output over the last 100 years.

Thankfully the game is almost up for the marketing folk and their agencies who still think it is acceptable in 2017 to churn out advertising campaigns that cast women as domestic obsessives, selfless nurturers or unattainable goddesses.

Earlier this week the UK's advertising watchdog - the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) - signalled that from next year onwards, the industry will be subject to much tougher regulations when it comes to the potentially harmful portrayal of gender stereotypes.

The new standards being proposed by the ASA will not only ban all the usual gender stereotypes, but ads that continue to show a woman having sole responsibility for cleaning the mess made by her husband and kids will be banned.

And in case advertisers think they can swap a female for a hapless and oafish male failing miserably at the same household or parental chores, they're mistaken. They too are facing the chop.

The ASA's intervention was prompted by public outcry in 2015 when the UK company Protein World launched a campaign featuring a scantily-clad woman in a bikini with the tagline: "Are you Beach Body Ready?" And if you are not, the inference was you should be ashamed of yourself.

At the time, the ASA said it received nearly 400 complaints about the ad (pictured) but found in an investigation that it didn't break any rules. However, more than 70,000 people signed a petition to remove the ads at the time and London's Lord Mayor Sadiq Khan went on to ban body-shaming advertisements on the city's public transportation last year.

In its report, which is called "Depictions, Perceptions and Harm," the ASA concludes that a much tougher line is needed when it comes on ads that feature stereotypical gender roles, including those which mock people for not conforming. It also noted advertising of this kind was generally perceived to be outdated, not reflective of modern society and that there is evidence that suggests it "can restrict the choices, aspirations and opportunities of children, young people and adults".

Apart from noting that advertising of this kind was generally perceived to be outdated and not reflective of modern society, the report also emphasised that young children in particular need protection from gender stereotypes and that there is "significant evidence that gender inequality leads to real-world harms for adults and children."

The findings of the report were based on plenty of fieldwork interviews with women and teen girls who expressed their concern at the potential future impact of advertising in terms of perpetuating stereotypical messages over time. It also found that the use of gratuitous nudity or emphasised sexualisation in ads was not considered acceptable and offered the potential for harm. It was also clear that some young people in the research were impacted negatively by viewing this type of advertising.

Those who took part in the research also noted that the advertising industry had a responsibility to the general public and a duty to ensure young people's anxieties were not exacerbated by advertising.

Although specific regulations have yet to be drawn up by the ASA, you can take it that the curtain will soon fall on this type of advertising. And not before time.

Given that a lot of the FMCG advertising we see online and offline in Ireland is actually created by UK agencies, it makes sense that the Advertising Standards Authority of Ireland (ASAI) should start paving the way to introduce similar regulations for Ireland. It will, of course, throw down the gauntlet to an industry that has been obsessed with the same old stereotypes in advertising for such a long time.

From a creative point of view, advertising agencies will now need to come up with something a lot more inspiring, innovative and reflective of modern society than the lazy default position that seems to be all to common within the industry. These are supposed to be bright and creative people after all.

Likewise marketing departments and the people who sign-off on these campaigns really need to understand that we are now living in 2017 and it's no longer acceptable to patronise, belittle and demean their customers with the same old offensive marketing messages that they have been spouting for years.

Of course, advertising is only one of many factors that contribute to unequal gender outcomes but tougher advertising standards can play an important role in tackling the many inequalities that exist in society while at the same time help improve outcomes for individuals, the economy and society as a whole.

Sunday Indo Business

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business