Is it time for stereotypes to finally get the boot?

This week, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) announced it would be cracking down on the perpetuation of gender stereotypes from 2018. Ads that would be in breach of these new rules include those that only show women cleaning while men struggle with simple household tasks, or ads that suggest it is wrong for a girl to engage in an activity because it is “stereotypically associated” with boys. The ASA will also be tougher on ads that mock people for not conforming to gender roles.

While the objectification of women in advertising is already banned in both New Zealand and the UK, the ruling is a first in tackling gender stereotypes in the industry.

Last year, Protein World’s ‘Beach Body Ready’ advertisement elicited hundreds of complaints from the public and an outcry on social media, spurring a petition signed by more than 60,000 people. However, it was judged by the UK’s ASA for not causing “widespread offense”, although it’s likely that it would be in breach of the ASA’s newly proposed rules.

Coincidentally enough, here in New Zealand, Wills Contracting and BurgerFuel have been called out today by the ASA for derogatory depictions of women, with both complaints being upheld.

The advertisement for Wills Contracting featured two men discussing one wife’s breasts in relation to the commercial lifting services offered by the company. The wife catches the men talking about her and suggests that they will need the lifting equipment to get them out of their dilemma.

Two complaints were made to the ASA about the ad, with one complainant arguing that it was degrading and belittling to women and that the stereotype of a nagging wife was offensive.

No direct response was received from the advertiser, and the Complaints Board were unanimous in its view that the advertisement had not been prepared with a due sense of social responsibility.

The ASA also ruled in favour of a complaint against a BurgerFuel advertisement appearing on in-store serviette tins. It showed a caricature of two pin-up style women back-to-back wearing only knee-high fishnet tights, one holding a cleaver and one holding a knife next to the words “Death before bad burgers”.

The complainant argued that the ad was offensive, objectified women and was not appropriate for a family restaurant. BurgerFuel argued that the image should be viewed as artwork as it was not intended to influence consumers. It said the nudity in the image was consistent with a child’s doll, but the advertisement was not targeting children and was unlikely to cause serious or widespread offense to women or people in general.

The majority of the Complaints Board ruled the advertisement as offensive, although a minority of the Board disagreed and said the cartoon nature of the advertisement saved it from breaching the ASA’s code.

While both ads from Wills Contracting and BurgerFuel were found to have breached the watchdog’s current rules, past rulings concerning the depiction of women show that not all is clear cut. In 2015, the ASA chose not to uphold a complaint against property developers Gillman Wheelans for a billboard depicting a male builder standing while a female builder knelt down beside him. A sexually suggestive shadow appeared behind the pair alongside the words “Getting the job done”.

The majority of the Complaints Board at the time acknowledged the double entendre with the shadow. However, it said the risqué image was subtle, which stopped the image from being overtly sexual and was saved by the provision for humour under the Code for People in Advertising. The Board disagreed that the image objectified and demeaned women and said the humour with the shadow was oblique and did not reach the threshold to be said to cause serious or widespread offence to women. 

However, a minority of the Complaints Board expressed concerns about the medium. It said the visibility of the billboard medium meant the advertisement was highly visible to a wide cross-section of the general public. The minority said, despite its subtlety, such indiscriminate exposure to the risqué image, was not socially responsible.

In the ASA’s most complained about ads of 2016, Carl’s Jr. received four complaints about its ‘bacon three-way burger’ ad that aired in the local market, featuring some very provocative eating by some very sexualised women. While the Complaints Board agreed that the ad contained sexual innuendo, it also ruled that it did not meet the threshold to cause serious or widespread offense.  

While unrelated to sexism, 2 Cheap Cars ‘From ‘Ah so’ to ‘Ah Sold’’ ad was the most complained about ad in 2016, receiving a whopping 27 complaints in regards to its perpetuation of racist stereotypes. And while the advertiser agreed to remove the advertisement, it argued that it had been viewed by more than 10 Japanese people and none of them found it to be offensive. The company’s Japanese directors also felt they should be able to express their own native culture.

The complaint, which was settled, is reminiscent of the country’s much quoted ‘Spray and Walk Away’ ad and its two-dimensional representation of Asians.

Other complaints specifically taking issue with stereotyping included a Westinghouse ad which was accused of being offensive and sexist.

“She is made out to be useless at domestic chores, and her characterization as ditzy, shallow and stupid implies that she is unintelligent and incapable simply because she is not conforming to traditional gender roles,” wrote the complainant. “I find it particularly appalling that, while she is made out to be stupid, as she struggles with groceries falling out of the fridge, the father looks on condescendingly, but does not move from his seat as he watches his wife struggle.”

However, the chairman ruled that the portrayal of the woman was light-hearted and said the likely consumer take away from the advertisement would be that the woman was a humorous foil to highlight the fridge’s storage capability, not a statement about women in general.

While the advertising industry in New Zealand would like to believe itself as modern and progressive, these complaints to the ASA—whether upheld or not—show that advertisers still find themselves resorting to harmful stereotypes. Earlier this year, Contagion’s Dean Taylor wrote an opinion piece for StopPress arguing that while people were rallying in solidarity with women following Donald Trump’s presidential win, advertisers were still thinking that women should be doing the dishes.

“Whether we like it or not, the media has conditioned us into sexually stereotyping women in this male-dominated industry and advertising has been the worst offender,” wrote Taylor. 

“It’s probably time we brought an end to clips of women getting really excited about removing stains, washing the dishes or vacuuming the floor. No one gets excited about any of those things; not even the presenters on Kiwi Living.” 

Stereotypes can be a stubborn thing. They’re often ingrained into a person’s thinking and happens unconsciously, as this experiment by BBC Three earlier in the year demonstrates. In the video, a variety of people both male and female are asked a simple question involving a father, son, and a surgeon. But when the BBC Three team asked participants who the surgeon was, the majority failed to realise was that the surgeon was the boy’s mum.

In an idealised situation, regulatory bodies like the ASA shouldn’t be required to implement rules that actively discourage such depictions, and as Marketing Week points out, rules can only go so far, arguing that with just 12 percent of creative directors in the UK being female, casual stereotyping won’t disappear until the industry as a whole has a more diverse workforce who can call out dodgy ads before they see the light of day. 

Advertising in recent years has gone to great lengths to actively counter stereotypes around women, as seen in Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaign, Microsoft’s ‘Girls Do Science’ campaign and Always’ ‘#LikeAGirl’ campaign. And while there’s no shortage of brands making an effort to celebrate diversity and empowerment, one of the most powerful steps advertisers can take is the more subtle step of avoiding putting female characters into positions and roles that fuel the perceptions that hinder equal advancement. Advertisers don’t need to be shouting from rooftops, but they certainly don’t need to be making shadowy innuendos in order to ‘get the job done’.

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