ASA gender report makes me think of Brexit and Michael Gove

24 Jul 2017  |  Dominic Mills 
ASA gender report makes me think of Brexit and Michael Gove

Sexist? Heineken's ‘Walk-in Fridge’ ad (2009)

The Advertising Standards Authority's crackdown on sexist and gender stereotyping ads feels like insanity and over-reach combined, writes Dominic Mills

Let me start by saying - one caveat aside - that I greatly admire the Advertising Standards Authority. It is an exemplary organisation that, I believe, has both protected and enhanced the reputation of the advertising industry.

It works both for the industry and, at the same time, the public. It is particularly hot on those twin evils of our time, bogus health claims and the telecoms industry. Its decisions, for the most part, are deft, considered and wise - and I write as an ex-magazine editor who once found myself on the wrong side of the ASA. From what I understand, it is envied by its peers.

The caveat? Oh yeah, well it’s the fact that it once - COMPLETELY AND TOTALLY UNJUSTIFIABLY! - ignored a complaint of mine. (Never mind. I’m over it.)

So...the paean of praise over, it won’t surprise you to see that I am now about to give the ASA a good kicking. That’s down to its plan, announced last week and reported all over the broadcasters and the national press, to ban sexist and gender stereotyping ads.

I don’t know what has got into the ASA. This feels either like a socio-political land grab - an attempt commonly seen in non-commercial, quango-type organisations - to increase its power and influence, and thus the status of its apparatchiks. Do regulators ever try to reduce the space they regulate? Of course not.

Or there’s a more generous interpretation, which is that it sees legislative or regulatory trouble coming down the road and is making a pre-emptive bid to protect the ad industry from itself.

Either way, I think this is insanity and over-reach combined. It’s well-meaning, of course, but that is part of the problem because no-one wants to dissent from something that sets out to do good.

You can read the full report here or a summary version here.

The ASA, and I paraphrase here, says it has a regulatory duty to a) protect consumers and b) ensure ads are responsible. But protect consumers from what? And what is irresponsible advertising?

Well, ads that gender stereotype, obviously, and which are - also obviously and by extension - irresponsible.

“There’s a potential for harm or offence from gender stereotyping,” the ASA says. “Assumptions [as shown by stereotyping] can lead to unequal gender outcomes in public and private aspects of people’s lives; outcomes which are increasingly acknowledged to be detrimental to individuals, the economy and society in general.”

Well, I agree. But how much has this to do with advertising? As the ASA admits, “the overwhelming” majority of ads are responsible in this way.

So what’s the big deal? Well, according to the stakeholders and experts consulted by the ASA in the course of this exercise, advertising might - just might - have an effect. “A significant proportion of stakeholders have put forward strong, evidence-based views about the potential [my emphasis] for gender-stereotypical depictions in ads to be linked to real-world harms and inequalities.” ‘Potential’ and ‘evidence-based’ don’t really go together here, in my opinion.

And who are these stakeholders and experts? You can read the list, which looks like ‘do-gooder central’, here. Which is where I’ve gone all Michael Gove. Normally, I have great respect for ‘experts’, but the truth is that an expert in gender stereotyping studies from the University of X has a vested interest in promoting the issue.

So what we have expressed here is a utopian desire for society-wide social engineering, to be interpreted and regulated by a quango like the ASA, and it sends a chill down my spine.

At this point, you might conclude that, as a middle-aged, middle-class white man who is hardly ever likely to have experienced gender or any other kind of prejudice or discrimination, I would say that.

But that’s not the case. It’s just that I see advertisers making enormous efforts themselves to tackle these issues, not just because it’s right, but because it also makes commercial sense.

What’s more, they conduct this exercise in the court of public opinion, a far more effective form of regulation than a pontificating quango. These days, as we all know, public opinion can be mobilised at the speed of light and incredibly powerful - just take Boots and its attempt to moralise about the morning-after pill.

Which brings me to the parallels with Brexit. Just as Brexiteers voted to leave for a multitude of reasons - immigration, constitutional sovereignty, two fingers to the establishment and so on - so there will be an infinite number of perspectives on gender stereotyping and sexism.

How, in an ordered, rational, structured way, do you decide this ad or that ad crosses the line? I certainly wouldn’t want this left to a self-appointed bureaucracy - whose make-up you can see here, here or, via CAP, here.

Let’s just leave a few ads on the table here where I, for one, would hate to have to adjudicate. The Moneysupermarket dance-off for one, 2016’s most-complained-about commercial; or Vauxhall’s ‘Pyjama Mamas’.

Or perhaps the one below from Heineken, entitled ‘Walk-in Fridge’. Dividing into men and women, a young couple show their friends round their new house. Shown an enormous walk-in wardrobe, the women enjoy a melt-down and scream with joy and excitement. Then they hear the same noise from the kitchen, where the men are getting hysterical over a giant walk-in fridge stocked with, of course, Heineken.

Is that sexist? Is it an out-and-out case of gender stereotyping? Are the men subverting gender stereotypes or mocking them?

Or finally, the classic ‘Launderette’ ad for Levi’s by BBH thirty years ago - chosen, interestingly, by Facebook UK boss Nicola Mendelsohn as one her top five.

Sexual objectification? Absolutely. Gender stereotyping? You bet. Any good? You don’t need me to tell you that.

Why not just let the public decide rather than the ASA.

And while it’s banging on about all this stuff, what about TV, press, magazine and online content? I know, why don’t we regulate that while we’re at it?

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NickDrew, CEO, Fuse Insights on 24 Jul 2017
“Of the two big media stories last week (BBC pay being the other), you probably picked the easier to discuss!
I'm not quite sure where I stand on this whole proposal, but as you flag there are worrying signs both in what is proposed and how it has been covered. For starters, the unquestioning reporting that conflates two issues (objectionable ads such as the Beach Body Ready campaign, and gender inequality in wider society), using the first as illustration of the need for the ASA to regulate the second, is a pretty damning indictment of what used to be a responsible press that discussed the merits of any additional regulation (government or otherwise).
More broadly, the near-complete absence of discussion in the media of whether this move would be justified or even enforceable is worrying in the extreme, and only detracts from the credibility of the entire initiative. It's tough enough to argue that advertising leads (rather than reflects) societal expectations; the complete whitewash in the press coverage rather makes it look as if publishers see it as an easy way to say "well of *course* we're feminist and actively supporting equality of all sorts" without actually having to change any of their coverage or editorial stance. Far easier to say this is a good thing than have to stop "reporting" on WAGs, swimwear selfies and the like...”

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