Over the summer, we’ve watched with interest as gender stereotyping has risen up the corporate social responsibility agenda and prompted wider commentary. In ad land alone, there have been some high profile developments that, in one form or another, demonstrate how topical it has become.

Brand giant Unilever recently announced its pledge to drop all sexist stereotypes from its advertising. Clothing retailer GAP ran into a social media storm when it tweeted about its boys and girls range. And there was the high profile resignation of Saatchi and Saatchi executive director Kevin Roberts following a gender diversity row.

The ad industry itself has also been looking closely at gender and advertising.  Industry think-tank Credos has published its most recent research report – Picture of Health? – which looked at how male models are portrayed in advertising and the media. In particular, it explored whether boys were aware of digitally enhanced imagery and whether that was affecting their attitudes and behaviour. Significantly, the research revealed that advertising was one of the influences putting pressure on boys to look good. It makes for compelling reading and provides important input to our own work in this area.

On that note, earlier this year we announced the launch of a project exploring themes and issues surrounding gender stereotyping. We set out three key objectives: to examine evidence on gender stereotyping in ads; to seek views from a range of stakeholders; and to commission our own research into public opinion.

A team of my colleagues from across the Advertising Standards Authority and Committee of Advertising Practice have been working hard and have already made great progress on all three fronts. Our announcement triggered lots of discussion in social media and prompted many members of the public to email us with their views on what we could or should cover. And a host of individuals, academics, marketers and organisations with expertise on gender issues have submitted evidence and research to us.

We’ve run seminars in London and Edinburgh where a wide range of robust, constructive and informative views have been shared and we’ve seen the importance of hearing those views directly, rather than assuming we can speak for people who are not in the room. We’re now analysing that feedback to help shape the public research we’re going to carry out and which will inform how we interpret and apply the rules in this area.

In the few short months our project has been underway, we’ve also found ourselves grappling with the complexities and nuances of this topic through our day-to-day work investigating complaints about ads. Indeed, three rulings published on the same day in June highlight some of the challenges we face as a regulator in being even-handed, consistent and in line with societal views.

We’ve run seminars in London and Edinburgh where a wide range of robust, constructive and informative views have been shared and we’ve seen the importance of hearing those views directly, rather than assuming we can speak for people who are not in the room. We’re now analysing that feedback to help shape the public research we’re going to carry out and which will inform how we interpret and apply the rules in this area.

In the few short months our project has been underway, we’ve also found ourselves grappling with the complexities and nuances of this topic through our day-to-day work investigating complaints about ads. Indeed, three rulings published on the same day in June highlight some of the challenges we face as a regulator in being even-handed, consistent and in line with societal views.

Three ads by three different advertisers for three very different products: masking tape; horticultural equipment; and electronic cigarettes. All prompted complaints about how they depicted women. We banned two of the ads (Etesia and Tembe DIY Product Ltd) because they were sexually suggestive, objectified women, were sexist and therefore were likely to cause serious offence. The former featured underwear-clad models posing on or using gardening equipment and the latter a model painting a wall while dressed in a short dress, stockings, suspenders and high-heels. Our rulings took into account the fact that the images of the women in the ads bore no relationship to the advertised product.

Contrast those two rulings with our decision not to ban a third ad, by Blu, and the intricacy of the debate around gender and the fine line between what is and isn’t acceptable under the advertising rules is brought into sharp focus.

The Blu ad, a front cover of a four-page wraparound of the Evening Standard, featured a nude woman, the top of her buttocks visible, with her head turned to look back towards the camera. She was holding an e-cigarette. Complainants believed it was sexist and objectified the woman. The advertiser and publisher argued that the black and white image was shot in a classical, stylised and artistic way, the model’s expression was contemplative and the woman was an example of someone who might use the product; not a mere object. In this instance, while we acknowledged the nudity was not directly relevant to the product advertised, the tone of the ad was sensual, not sexually explicit, and we didn’t think it portrayed the model as a sexual object.

22222We think there was a subtle – but all important – difference in the way the woman was presented in the Blu ad compared to the Etesia and Tembe ads. But making these judgments is not straightforward. We know not everyone will agree with our decisions. That’s one of the reasons we’ve launched our project: we want to make sure that, as far as is possible, we’re in tune with prevailing standards on this issue.

While those examples focused on one element of the gender debate, the depiction of women, the scope of our project is deliberately much broader than that. For example, we’re exploring other pressures that men are under beyond those concerning body confidence and which some stakeholders we’ve engaged with believe can impact on men’s mental health more widely. And we’re examining views and receiving input from experts on gender identity issues.

Concerns about and challenges surrounding gender stereotyping aren’t the sole preserve of the advertising industry, of course. But when it comes to the impact of ads, we have a crucial role to play. This is a challenging area and we’re listening, learning and open to what people have to say. By examining evidence, seeking views and commissioning public research, as well as undertaking our usual task of carefully considering and responding to complaints, we’re fulfilling that role in earnest.

Source ASA Website

Author: Guy Parker – ASA Chief Executive

Guy joined the ASA in 1992 and has held a wide range of positions in the organisation. He became Chief Executive in June 2009, having previously been Deputy Director General, Director of Complaints and Investigations and Secretary of the CAP. He sets and directs the strategy of the ASA, with the ASA Chairman and Council, and oversees all executive functions of the ASA system, including the handling and investigation of complaints, delivery of monitoring and enforcement activity, development of policy, provision of CAP advice and training and the system’s communications, marketing, public affairs and research activities. Guy is also the Chairman of the European Advertising Standards Alliance.

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