We Read the ASA’s Report on Gender Stereotypes so You Don’t Have to – it’s Scary

Jordan Holbrook August 20, 2017 3
We Read the ASA’s Report on Gender Stereotypes so You Don’t Have to – it’s Scary

I recently decided to donate a cursory glance to the report “Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: A report on gender stereotypes in advertising” by the Agenda Spreading Agency (sorry, Advertising Standards Agency) which, according to them, “provides an evidence-based case for stronger regulation of ads that feature stereotypical gender roles or characteristics which might be harmful to people, including ads which mock people for not conforming to gender stereotypes”. Sounds very noble, doesn’t it? Well, I can confirm now, after having read the damned thing, the report is nothing more than virtue-signalling and feminist clap-trap. Yippee!

[This article is going to be a little longer than your usual The Backbencher post but, because I had to sit through and read all of the report, you can sit through and read all of my analysis. I hope you find my proposition acceptable.]

The report primarily discusses how adverts are harmful to people – oh, sorry, did I say people? I meant to say how adverts are harmful to women and how they perpetrate HAWG, which is like VAWG (Violence Against Women and Girls) but instead substituting the word Harm in place of Violence. Whilst they don’t specifically say HAWG, they continuously (I cannot stress that word enough) reference back to the harm faced by women, occasionally referencing men and boys but only to slap them back down (see p. 23 for several examples of this).

The report argues harm is caused via stereotypes, citing how women are oppressed because there are stereotypes that hold them down and, because there are gender stereotypes depicted in adverts, the adverts must therefore be harming women. The mental gymnastics are spine-breaking. This report is less about advertising and more about feminist “research” into sexism – and how everything is sexist.

I am also vexed by how they struggle to differentiate between equality and sameness and gender stereotypes and gender tendencies. What we have in real life is a bimodal distribution of gender (with a tiny number of outliers), men tend to perform one collection of gendered behaviours and women tend to perform another collection. Sure, there can be overlap and nonconformity but, this does not refute essential gender differences in human behaviour. This report acts as though men and women must be the same and not just equal – this is a running trend that can be easily noticed when they discuss “real life harm”.

Many times when research is cited to back up arguments or assertions, either the link is dead/mistyped, or the evidence they reference is not congruent with the point(s) being raised. This made assessing this study very laborious and tedious.

The report is broken down into seven sections plus their conclusions/next steps:

  1. UK ADVERTISING REGULATION POLICY AND PRACTICE IN RELATION TO GENDER STEREOTYPING
  2. LEGISLATIVE AND PUBLIC POLICY CONTEXT
  3. ADVERTISING INDUSTRY INITIATIVES
  4. INTERNATIONAL ADVERTISING REGULATION
  5. EVIDENCE FROM ACADEMICS AND INTEREST GROUPS
  6. STAKEHOLDER INPUT – SUBMISSIONS AND SEMINARS
  7. PUBLIC OPINION RESEARCH

Here’s a brief review of each of the seven sections:

Section One: UK ADVERTISING REGULATION POLICY AND PRACTICE IN RELATION TO GENDER STEREOTYPING

The evidence gathered over the course of the project reminds us of the value of giving particular weight to the perspective of those depicted or represented in ads.

The report claims that those who are represented in ads must be represented fairly and accurately – we must respect the opinions of those who are represented in ads. They cite “Women & Girls” and “Unhealthily Thin” as the target issues (p. 15) but, fail to mention that Protein World made £1 million in the FOUR DAYS following the “ARE YOU BEACH BODY READY?” nontroversy. Oops.

The report then states that the current CAP and BCAP codes are sufficient in preventing harm. This is supported on p. 18 which states “complaints about gender roles and characteristics have rarely been formally investigated in the past” and, of cases of depictions of men and women in “stereotypical roles or displaying stereotypical characteristics” that were resolved in 2015-16, none resulted in formal investigations. The report does provide some examples of adverts that were banned due to sexualisation of women and depictions of unhealthily thin women, but fail to mention they only received one complaint each (here and here – p. 20).

The ASA appears to have very little work to do (p. 17), judging by the number of cases they deal with: over a 24 month period the ASA received 1,378 cases (57.4 a month, about 1.9 a day) – 66.3% relating to women and 33.7% relating to men. It would appear, what with the vast number of adverts the British public are exposed to, that very few of them are breaking any rules or causing any offence.

This section tries to sell a problem so as to sell a cure, only to fail to sell a valid problem thus invalidating their cure. Sad!

Section Two: LEGISLATIVE AND PUBLIC POLICY CONTEXT

There is significant evidence that gender inequality leads to real-world harms for adults and children. These unequal outcomes might affect different people in a variety of practical, social, emotional and economic ways.

This section uses archaic and disproven statistics in vain attempts to validate a crusade, citing the pay-gap and unequal representation of women on boards (p. 21). Sigh. The report also uses “evidence” – much of which fails to argue/agree with their points (e.g., the concepts of body image and sexism are often conflated), so many of the links used as evidence simply fail to support the claims being made.

They do throw a bone to the other side (p. 23) by citing work from MRA-UK only to dismiss it with the very same statistics the referenced work debunks. They briefly discuss the Men and Boys Coalition but only really introduces who they are in the context of why Men’s Rights Activists are bad people. Sigh.

On p. 24 they hint to their agenda, citing a report by the Council of the European Union (but uses the wrong link, correct link is here) and the push for gender equality (when they really mean to say gender sameness). They then cite a 2012 EU Parliament report and call for the elimination of all gender stereotypes (irrespective of whether they are normal gender behaviours or not). They finish off by citing The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (Section 5) where it is argued that The State should have powers to enact and enforce their definition of gender. This is a dangerous conclusion.

Essentially, they want you to think there is a gender problem which is exacerbated by the media and that The State needs to come in and fix all of it.

Section Three: ADVERTISING INDUSTRY INITIATIVES:

A number of advertisers have begun to identify the commercial advantages of rejecting gender stereotypes in favour of depictions which more accurately reflect their consumer base.

This section reeks of gynocentrism, discussing how some advertising industry awards do not recognise work that “objectifies or perpetuates negative and harmful inequalities related to gender” yet, the source cited only references women because men apparently don’t count as a gender. It then says how “many advertisers have taken a new approach to the depiction of genders that seeks to empower viewers, particularly women”, these acts are defined as “positive, independent steps to challenge gender stereotypes and inequalities” (pp. 28-29). This is their agenda: use advertising to push the gender narrative. This section is all about putting women on a pedestal and leaving men in the dirt – they want this to be an advertising industry initiative. Goodo!

The two preceding pages (pp. 26-27) cite how many industries are forcing in diversity hires and quotas, the report says this is good and needs to be replicated in advertising, yet several of the ads they reference that already do this, have in fact been shunned for forcing an agenda.

Section Four: INTERNATIONAL ADVERTISING REGULATION

Other Advertising Regulatory Bodies (ARBs) have developed and enforced rules and guidance to prevent the depiction of harmful stereotypes.

This section of the report considers the positions of 28 countries on the portrayal of gender in advertising. Out of those 28 countries, 24 restrict gender stereotypes in advertising through legislation or through a regulatory body. So, because other countries are authoritarian, we should be replicating such behaviour.

Overall, most of the ARBs definitions are acceptable, but some of them go too far. Norway is an example “The prohibition of sexist advertising was incorporated into the Act when Norway’s Gender Equality Act came into force in 1978. The objective of the law is ‘to promote equality between women and men, and in particular to improve the position of women’.” I suspect they want this replicated over here.

I specifically recall my mother saying, when I was younger and engaging in a group misdemeanour of some sort or another, ‘if your friend were to jump of a cliff, would you do it as well?’ I feel this anecdote is relevant here.

Section Five: EVIDENCE FROM ACADEMICS AND INTEREST GROUPS

Evidence demonstrates that reinforcing and perpetuating traditional gender roles can lead to suboptimal outcomes for individuals and groups in terms of their professional attainment and personal development.

By the ASA’s own admission, the majority of adverts are fine as they “do not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.” They cite the pay gap and sexual violence as real world inequalities, discuss the origins of gender differences (because relevance) and acknowledge they cannot “confirm the extent to which advertising can influence viewers or its role in constructing gender stereotypes” (pp. 37-38).

It is also argued that, because of cultivation theory and social cognitive theory, we are learning gender stereotypes, which are being conditioned into us (p. 39). But, as there’s so many different depictions of men and women, how can they be sure which depictions are influencing us? The report then attempts to argue that because adverts are very good at making us buy things (which they provide evidence for), they can affect our views of gender (which they don’t provide evidence for) (p. 39).

Lots of evidence is provided regarding harm caused, specifically regarding body image and self-esteem, but it primarily focuses on women and girls – overwhelmingly so. The odd paragraph and point is made in defence of men and boys. The only times this does occur is when discussing the Samaritans’ research into suicide (p. 42), the #mandictionary campaign ran by The Campaign Against Living Miserably (p. 42), The Mintel Report that assessed men’s self-perception (p. 43) and the Credos research into body image and opinions of advertisements of boys aged 8 to 18 (pp. 43-44) – not all of this research relates back to advertisements. The rest of the seven or so pages are about women and girls.

Entire section can be summed up as “hyper-sensationalization is bad and harms people, we only care when it happens to women”.

Section Six: STAKEHOLDER INPUT – SUBMISSIONS AND SEMINARS

A significant proportion of stakeholders have put forward strong, evidence-based views in submissions and at seminars about the potential for gender stereotypical depictions in ads to be linked to real-world harms and inequalities.

Many of the submissions can be summated with “I think these ads are damaging, other people think they’re damaging too”. Opinion polls on whether people think an advertisement is harmful to someone else is not strong enough evidence, in my humble opinion. Around nine in ten links provided simply link to the submitters personal profile, rather than evidence to back up any claim they made.

They also attempt to argue the “cumulative effect” which means the ads on their own are fine but, when they get together they are bad. Sounds eerily similar to their argument about Lad Culture (men are fine on their own, they’re just not allowed to collect together).

It isn’t until p. 50 that we meet the first good study but, the link is dead. Thankfully, I am not an idiot like them and I found it. The study simply shows how gender roles are prevalent in advertising, it doesn’t at any point mention harm. Such a trend also exists in adverts for children. They then cite this study and say that because there are gender roles in adverts it means girls’ life-choices are limited (of course it’s all about girls, again!). The ASA report fails to mention the study doesn’t look at gender roles but sexualised popular culture instead. Who cares about intellectual honesty when you’ve got an agenda to push?

Section Seven: PUBLIC OPINION RESEARCH

Gender stereotyping in ads has the potential to harm and offend, which could have serious implications for children and young people in particular. The participants believed that the advertising industry has a responsibility to the general public, but should not lose its creativity.

The ASA commissioned a research report, which I have also donated a cursory glance too (I love living). I do not know the adults who were surveyed for this report but, overall, they seem to all have a relatively sensible head on their shoulders. In brief, the participants said that if they could identify with the person in the ad, the ad is more likely to be appealing to them. If they identify with the person in the ad and the person is depicted in a negative light, they feel put-off. Simple stuff that could have been figured out using just some common sense.

Participants also thought “it was appealing to see attractive ‘perfect’ people and situations in adverts … [they] agreed that the adverts did not always need to be realistic and could be aspirational, but felt that care needed to be exercised when promoting messages that could be seen by vulnerable groups, including children.” (p. 57) Simply put, using attractive people in ads is okay, don’t over-sensationalise it.

Participants also agreed “gender stereotypes existed and were perpetuated in advertising, as well as in wider life.Because the Sexual Division of Labour has existed for at least 50,000 years and we have been sexually dimorphic since the origins of anisogamous sex, it’s safe to assume gender stereotypes exist and are constantly being perpetuated. They are as real as you and I.

Conclusions and Next Steps:

Continuing with the “argumentum ad nauseam”, “non causa pro causa” and “proof by verbosity” logical fallacies, the report concludes “Gender stereotypes have the potential to harm by inviting assumptions about adults and children that might negatively restrict how they see themselves and how others see them … To this end, ads that feature gender stereotypes have the potential to cause harm by contributing to unequal gender outcomes”. Because there are some gender stereotypes that are bad and because advertisements oft feature gender stereotypes, that means adverts are causing harm and promoting gender inequality. This is despite the fact that “the overwhelming majority of ads do not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence”.

They recommend fixing the codes and introducing new legislation to combat gender stereotypes but without actually implicating gender itself. The wording is ambiguous, so how they intend to do this I do not know.

Overall, there is a lot of consideration given to “real world harms” caused by “gender inequalities”, focusing primarily on the plights suffered by women and girls. The report lists lots of stereotypes and how many are negative and treats them like they are all interconnected, assuming some sort of relation/causation. They crudely associate them with stereotypes presented in ads and try to then attach the negative baggage along with it.

A little less gynocentrism in the study and some more gender balance would have been nice, oh well.

The studies and evidence provided (that’s only when provided) do suggest there is harm being caused by depictions of men and women in advertisements but, from my understanding, this occurs when beauty or sex is hyper-sensationalised. This effect is especially noted in children. However, as the ASA repeatedly state, the majority of adverts are fine.

Whilst a definition of “stereotypes” is given, it feels almost arbitrary because they keep using the word “stereotype” when they should have used “tendencies” because many of the examples they cite are in fact normal behaviours.

They keep subtly hinting at how they want things to change, but fail to give concrete recommendations. I do not wish to falsely attribute to malice what could easily be attributed to incompetence, but I am a little wary about how they wish to implement change. They hint at a final goal (state control) but do not detail how to arrive there. This worries me.

Essentially, if due care is taken by advertisers so as to not over-sensationalise beauty and to not display gratuitous levels of sex/body, there is not a problem (in the already small number of cases where problems arise).

Finally, this report is unnecessary due to the miniscule size of the “problem”. However, I highly doubt this will negate certain interested parties’ drive to push more state involvement/meddling into the media, especially when there’s an agenda to be promoted!

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  • Rick Bradford

    Do you think hypnosis might enable me to filter out all ads from my consciousness? It would be a great boon. They serve no useful purpose to the potential purchaser in the internet age. They are a social plague. Ads cause harm, you might say.

    • Jordan Gonzo

      I have an adblocker (two, in fact). I find them to be easier, cheaper and considerably more efficient than hypnosis. 😛

      • Rick Bradford

        Damn things don’t work on hardcopy

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