From next year, TV advertisements that play on gender stereotypes, or that mock people who fail to conform to them, will not be permitted by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority.
The kinds of ads that have been flagged as inappropriate include those that depict men as incompetent at doing basic household or parenting chores, or that show a whole family leaving a giant mess for mum to clean up.
The authority has said ads that belittle people for not living up to gender norms — such as a KFC advertisement that implied a man suffering from anxiety was not masculine — have “costs for individuals, the economy and society”.
Attempts to counter the prevalence of gender stereotyping in the popular media are popularly dismissed as “social engineering” designed to alter “natural” behaviours for each gender. However, the stereotypes we see represented in advertising are already ideologically motivated by centuries of gender inequality.
Gender is a social construct and we have the power to shape and revise what is considered masculine and feminine. And the media we consume — particularly advertising, which we see continuously — are particularly powerful in shaping what we think is “normal” and acceptable for men and women to do.
Think of the ubiquitous television ads in the 1980s for Tip Top bread, with their “Good on ya, Mum” slogan. The smiling mothers presenting sandwiches to their children conveyed that women are the default parents and that satisfaction for women should stem from caring for others.
Australia has laws that apply to discriminatory advertising, including the Racial Discrimination Act and state and territory anti-discrimination acts. Apart from this, the industry is largely self-regulated. The Australian Association of National Advertisers has its own code of ethics.
The code forbids any advertisement that:
… discriminates against or vilifies a person or section of the community on account of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual preference, religion, disability, mental illness or political belief.
It also marks out “exploitative and degrading” sexual representations as unacceptable.
Australia has largely moved beyond acceptance of extremely objectifying advertisements for products with no inherent connection with sex. A prime example was the seductive “Chiko chick” who promoted the Chiko roll while posed on a motorbike from the 1950s.
However, self-regulated advertising criteria that merely forbid outright illegal discrimination or “degrading” sexual content set the bar especially low.
Other countries, such as Sweden and Spain, have made concerted efforts not only to avoid gender stereotyping in advertising but to counteract it. For instance, toy catalogues produced by Toys R Us and Toy Planet have drawn international attention for their depiction of both boys and girls playing with dolls, trucks and tools.
This kind of gender neutrality is not intended to discourage girls or boys from playing with the toys traditionally associated with their gender. Instead, it aims to make it acceptable for them to choose from any of the available options.
When you consider that debates about childcare costs are still usually framed in terms of whether it is financially worth women returning to work, it is clear the way we socialise children into seeing child care as women’s responsibility flows all the way through to major issues of employment and gender equality.
Gender stereotyping in advertising is not just problematic because of limiting representations of girls and women and the reassertion of their role in the home. In addition, the ways boys and men are depicted as useless at basic domestic tasks makes them out to be simpletons.
There are countless examples of “dumb dads” in ads. Think of the father in a Glade advertisement who is consistently befuddled by an automatic deodorising spray.
However, these ads — which usually have a heteronormative orientation — also reinforce the status quo and culturally absolve men from responsibility to contribute to unpaid household labour, privileging their employment and recreation.
One way to consider advertising and other forms of popular culture is as a mirror that reflects our social norms, beliefs and values. If this is true, then advertising could be absolved of responsibility for reproducing gender stereotypes in that it is as progressive or regressive as the society in which it is produced.
Crucially, advertising and other media are not only reflectors of our culture. They also have the power to produce and influence values and norms.
With this in mind, the sooner we regulate advertising to encourage the depiction of a world we’d like to inhabit, the sooner it is likely to eventuate.