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Adverts must avoid harmful gender stereotypes

In late 2018, the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP and BCAP) announced the introduction of a new rule to deal with the depiction of harmful gender stereotypes in advertising.

The new rule will apply to both the broadcast and non-broadcast codes of advertising practice and come into force on 14 June 2019, stating that advertising “must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence”.

The introduction of the rule (as rule 4.9 in the CAP Code, and rule 4.19 in the BCAP Code), which is supported by additional guidance, follows a public consultation and the 2017 review of gender stereotypes in advertising by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) which considered the effect that adverts may have in emphasising such stereotypes.

Adverts under attack

Some brands do still use stereotypical gender characteristics to uphold and carry their message, and in the last few years the ASA has upheld a number of complaints where adverts have been found to objectify women (and men), including some ads which were intended to be viewed as humorous or lighthearted.

Even adverts which seek to challenge gender ‘norms’ will need to consider carefully whether they comply with the new rules. For example, Gillette recently ran a much-publicised advertising campaign (see here) which sought to challenge traditional views of what it means to be a successful man, particularly in light of the #MeToo campaign. The ASA received a “small handful” of complaints that the ad was an “assault on masculinity”, but the ASA concluded that it could not investigate the matter as the ad did not air in the UK. In any event, if aired in the UK the ASA is unlikely to conclude that the Gillette ad breaches the new gender stereotyping rules.

ASA assessments

The ASA guidance sets out the key factors that will guide its assessment of whether an ad’s representation is like to cause harm or offence. These factors include the impact on a group of people who are being stereotyped. For example, will it have a harmful impact on those who hold protected characteristics (such as gender reassignment, sex, pregnancy, or sexual orientation), or other stereotypes such as those relating to age, race or religion?

The guidance also provides examples of scenarios involving gender stereotypes that would likely be unacceptable under the new rule. These include:

  • An ad depicting a man with his feet up and family members creating a mess around a home whilst a woman is solely responsible for cleaning the mess;
  • An ad that depicts a man being adventurous juxtaposed to a woman being delicate;
  • An ad that depicts a man or woman failing to achieve a task specifically due to their gender;
  • An ad that belittles a man for displaying emotional vulnerability.

Whilst ads may display people undertaking gender-stereotypical roles, such as a man doing DIY, it should not be presented in such a way that it suggests the role is unique to one gender or only available to one gender. The guidance highlights the importance in avoiding mocking or belittling people for not conforming to a gender stereotype.

The Director of the CAP warned, “harmful gender stereotypes have no place in UK advertisements. Nearly all advertisers know this, but for those that don’t, our new rule calls time on stereotypes that hold back people and society”.

Moving forward, advertisers and brands must avoid using comparative gender stereotypes or portraying gender stereotypes in a negative way.

© Copyright 2019 Squire Patton Boggs (US) LLP

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About this Author

Carlton Daniel, intellectual property and technology lawyer, London, Squire Patton Boggs
Partner

Carlton Daniel is a partner in our Intellectual Property & Technology team based in our London office. His practice incorporates the full range of specialist advice in the advertising, marketing and media sectors, and he handles both contentious and non-contentious matters. His practice ranges from advising on intellectual property rights (including trade marks, designs, copyright and confidential information) to commercial contracts, licensing, brand endorsement, sponsorship, product placement, privacy, defamation, confidentiality, data compliance and advertising...

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