Some time back, the Advertising Standards Authority in Britain – who, as we have to constantly point out, have no legal authority whatsoever – decided that from now on, gender stereotypes would no longer be allowed in advertising material. At the time, we suggested that this was going to lead to ludicrous decisions, and we take no pleasure in being proven right.
This week, the ASA have passed judgement on the first two ads to fall fould of this new form of thought crime. In one, for Philadelphia cheese, a man was seen accidentally leaving a child strapped in a car seat on a restaurant buffet conveyer belt, having become distracted by food. Clearly, it was a joke that arguably could have just as easily featured two women, but the ASA famously have no sense of humour. To them, the ad clearly suggested that men – new fathers in particular, but perhaps men in general – are incapable of caring for children, and that’s clearly a harmful (seriously, that’s the word they use) stereotype. And if it had featured a women, perhaps the ASA might see that as a stereotype too (the dizzy, forgetful woman; the frazzled new mother).
In the second ad, for the Volkswagen eGolf, various people were shown engaged in various activities. These included two male astronauts, a para-athlete doing the long jump, a couple in a tent that was attached to a sheer cliff face, and a woman sitting next to a pram. Shocking stuff. The theme of the ad was adapting to the new – in this case, an electric car.
Here, the complainants – who really need to get a life – claimed that because the man in the tent was seen switching off the light while the woman was already asleep, it somehow implied that she was less adventurous than him – despite the fact that they had both clearly climbed the cliff. Unless there is a stereotype that women fall asleep more quickly than men, it’s hard to see the problem here. The other problem, of course, was the woman with the pram – a cliché because obviously, women do not look after children.
While it might be argued that Volkswagen dug a hole for themselves by not featuring an active, athletic woman, it’s still hard to understand the thinking that this could somehow cause harm. These are not dangerous, unrealistic stereotypes, after all – a quick look at who pushes prams will show that it still is primarily women. You might not like that, but there you go. And it would seem that the eGolf was being pitched at a female consumer on the basis that it was a safe and ideal family car; frankly, it seems ludicrous to start down a path that says advertisers can’t pitch their products at their biggest audience, or that they would set out to alienate that audience by insulting them. More significantly, are the ASA now saying that we can’t show women looking after children any longer, lest it appeals to some stereotypical idea? Are whole groups of people going to be removed from the public gaze because they represent some sort of cliché?
While we can admire the fact that the ASA have been determinedly even-handed at being upset by both male and female stereotypes, it seems ludicrous that their idea of a stereotype includes a mother with a child or a women who just happens to have fallen asleep before her partner. If this is the level of harmful stereotype that they are outraged by, we have to wonder what sort of everyday behaviour will be accepted. After all, pretty much anything could be seen as a stereotype, and advertising thrives on feeding us the familiar. Will ads have to only feature men, women or the gender fluid doing the unexpected? Or will some level of common sense kick in that says that if men and women are genuinely offended by the way that they are portrayed in advertisting, they can vote with their wallets and not buy the prodicts in question.