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British industry watchdog bans sexist stereotypes in advertising

A new Advertising Standards Association code reflects what smart brands already know: Sexism doesn’t (and shouldn’t) sell.

British industry watchdog bans sexist stereotypes in advertising
[Photos: LightFieldStudios/iStock; DGLimages/iStock]

The dopey dad who doesn’t know how to change a diaper. The stressed out mom, cleaning the house while her husband does anything else. The soap that will definitely (maybe?) get you laid. All familiar advertising clichés that have been beaten into the ground and into our heads over decades of mediocre marketing. Now Britain’s Advertising Standards Association (ASA) has introduced a new rule that aims to cut out of advertising overtly sexist depictions of men and women in gender stereotypical roles, as well as suggestions that transforming your body will make you romantically successful, and the sexualization of young women.

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The ASA’s gender stereotyping project lead Ella Smillie told the Guardian that the organization doesn’t see its role as social engineering, but rather reflecting the changing standards in society. “Changing ad regulation isn’t going to end gender inequality, but we know advertising can reinforce harmful gender stereotypes, which can limit people’s choices or potential in life,” she said.

The ASA isn’t a government agency, but an industry organization with a self-regulated code of practice signed on to by all major advertisers. The new rule, which will start being enforced in June 2019, also applies to any social media posts by celebrities and other influencers paid for by advertisers.

Far from an intrusive Nanny State edict, the new rule is simply dragging lazy, negligent marketers still trafficking in this dreck up to what smart brands are already doing. It’s been two years since the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) in the U.S. and the White House announced the #SeeHer initiative to encourage advertisers, content creators, and the media to produce material that authentically portrays diverse women and girls. Also in 2016, Unilever CMO Keith Weed announced that the company pledged to drop all sexist stereotypes from its advertising after research showed that only 2% of ads portray intelligent women.

At Cannes Lions in 2016, Deutsch president Kim Getty gave a talk called “Men Versus Women: Exploring Marketing’s Impact on Gender Bias,” and told the audience of marketers that because women make up nearly half the workforce, when writing a script with a woman in it, assume she works. “Just start there,” said Getty. “When you’re writing a story for a man, assume he knows how to change a diaper and make dinner. Assume he’s capable, because so many men are awesome and capable. Just start there. So many stories don’t start there. Let’s start with how the world looks today.”

It’s now 2018, and brands shouldn’t need rules for this.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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