A ban on harmful gender stereotypes in advertising in the U.K. has snagged its first offenders and put advertisers and their agencies on alert.

Two months after the ban came into force, both Volkswagen and Mondelez’s Philadelphia brand have been charged by industry watchdog the Advertising Standards Authority with presenting gender stereotypes in a way that was likely to cause harm. Volkswagen perpetuated the idea that men were ineffective child-carers, said the ASA, while Philadelphia reinforced the idea that men are more athletic than women.

The Philadelphia ad was played for laughs, a common tactic in advertising where humor is often based on stereotypes to get across points in a very short space of time. But under the watchful eyes of the ASA’s regime being funny was beside the point. In fact, it took a hard-line approach to gender stereotypes that are subjective in both the ads. Just three people complained to the ASA after viewing the Volkswagen ad, whereas 128 people did so for the Philadelphia ad.

Some marketers and creatives believe the ASA’s bans go too far. Dave Lawrence, managing partner at agency Brave, believes the ASA has taken a heavy-handed view of gender stereotypes that could stifle an industry crying out for bolder, braver marketing creativity.

Ad executives must now contemplate whether to tweak, change or cancel any multimillion pound campaign they suspect promotes harmful stereotypes. Making such a hard call is compounded by the fact the ASA seems to have taken a broad view on what an offensive stereotype is. Essentially, if the ASA thinks that part of an ad, whether it’s the main narrative or one element of it, is “harmful” in a broad, indirect and undefinable way, they can ban it on that basis.

“What was meant to be a liberal and progressive change in approach to offensive and socially irresponsible gender stereotyping has become something that looks very illiberal and even regressive,” said Geraint Lloyd-Taylor, partner at media law firm Lewis Silkin. “As it stands, the ASA’s definition of ‘harm’ is unworkable, and urgently needs to be clarified. Moving forward, I hope that these advertisers seek an independent review of the latest decisions and that the ASA rows back from its current hard-line approach.”

It’s unlikely the ASA will back down from its stance despite pressure from the public, according to advertiser trade organizations ISBA and the IPA and TV advertising body Clearcast. For the ASA, the bans are a statement of intent. The watchdog has previously spoken at length about the ad industry’s duty to ensure the messages it promotes are based on true insight into the audience, not simply assumptions about consumers. Some agencies support its decision. Michael Brown, partner for insight and cross-culture at media agency Universal McCann, said the rulings will help force the industry to reconsider whether the fact that ads reinforce stereotypes is a good thing.

But generally, it’s much harder to make good advertising that gets a point across in a memorable, captivating way than it is to revert to stereotypes, tired tropes and clichés, according to Melanie Arrow, head of strategy at creative agency BMB. “But that’s what separates good advertising from bad, good agencies from bad,” she added.

The problem for some ad executives is not all those assumptions are inherently bad.

Portraying humor based on stereotyping in an ad is, whether the ASA likes it or not, more relatable, more human, and resonates with consumers. But it’s not necessarily damaging, said Lawrence. The ASA’s rulings have made using humor a balancing act of risk versus reward, he added.

But those same funny stereotypes can also be lazy, which is why Unilever is purging them from its own advertising, for example. Advertisers often revert to stereotypes to make a point quickly — dads are bumbling parents, while all men are sporty — but in doing so they run the risk of reinforcing clumsy and outdated representations. A recent study from research firm Kantar expanded on this point when it found that the vast majority of marketers think they don’t portray people in a stereotypical manner. Around 68% ads in the U.K. and Europe show women as “likeable” and/or “caring,” whereas only 4% of those ads have “authoritative” women in them, according to the same research.

Market research, whether it’s pre-testing work, surveys, focus groups or benchmark tools, could become more important to marketers looking to avoid a regressive moment.

“It’s time brands face up to their role in perpetuating archaic stereotypes. But there are commercial ramifications too.” said Brown. “A lot of advertising budget is under pressure. There aren’t many brands who would go ahead and take a piece of creative back to post production or further back to the drawing board unless it was absolutely necessary.” The question is whether the examples of Volkswagen and Philadelphia are enough to create the fear factor among those brands that need to take their ads back to the drawing board, he added.

 

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