Thoughts on gender stereotypes and discrimination in advertising

Gender stereotypes, a never-ending story

Stereotypes and gender discrimination in advertising.

The use of stereotypes with gender discrimination in advertising is not exactly a new issue. The discussion around the topic periodically surfaces without much happening with respect to the role assigned to women in commercial communication.

New approaches to gender stereotypes.

Recently the Press reported – receiving a broad echo – about the findings of a recent study commissioned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the UK. On the premise that “gender stereotypes have the potential to cause harm by inviting assumptions about adults and children that might negatively restrict how they see themselves and how others see them”, such report concludes that the study’s findings “suggest  that  a  tougher  line  needs  to  be  taken  on  ads  that  feature stereotypical gender roles  or  characteristics  which,  through  their  content  and  context,  may  be potentially harmful to people”. Hence, the announcement that ASA will soon deliver new standards, meant to offer the advertising industry guidelines, specifically dealing with the use of gender stereotypes in advertising.

Advertising stereotypes throughout the EU.

Gender equality advocate groups and a large part of the public opinion welcomed the initiative of the UK watchdog as long overdue. Also, in other countries – both, in Europe as well as Overseas – the comments on the initiative resulted positive as the issue of gender discrimination in commercial communication had been brought to the attention of national lawmakers repeatedly. In some cases, similar steps had already been taken, e.g. in Germany the Municipalities in Berlin and Frankfurt had introduced restrictions and bans as to gender discrimination in outdoor advertising.

Rules versus education.

While the UK approach is certainly laudable, question is whether “new rules” will do the job and result effective in changing a deeply rooted attitude. Some argue that specific regulations are essential to the purpose of a substantial change, others claim that ‘gender differences’ should not be overseen and cannot be overcome by law. On one side, research attests how deeply gender stereotypes impact on the education process of children at a very early stadium. On the other side, a study showed that a test group of kids, offered a doll house to play with, had the girls making a “proper” use (absit injuria verbis) by repeating family scenarios in the house, while the males used the house’s roof just to run down a baby carriage.
I do not feel that I am qualified to deal with the psychological aspects of the problem, but I do have some thoughts about the effectiveness of ‘rules’, meant to prevent gender discrimination. In my personal view, there is no lack of rules for dealing with the issue.

Existing rules to prevent gender discrimination in advertising.

The Consolidated ICC Code on Advertising and Marketing Practice – i.e. ‘the mother’ of most industry self-regulation systems – expressly sets (in Article 4/1) that “Marketing communication should respect human dignity and should not incite or condone any form of discrimination, including that based upon race, national origin, religion, gender, age, disability or sexual orientation”. Article 9/1/c/ii of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive – i.e. Directive no. 13 of March 10, 2010 – also calls onto Member States of the EU to “..ensure that audiovisual commercial communications provided by media service providers under their jurisdiction ..” does not “... include or promote any discrimination  based  on  sex,  racial  or  ethnic origin,  nationality,  religion  or  belief,  disability,  age or sexual orientation”. Most provisions governing commercial communication throughout the EU have similar principles. Find in the following a few examples of provisions specifically addressing the topic. In Italy, the Code of Marketing Communication Self-Regulation also requires that “Marketing communication should not offend moral, civil and religious beliefs. Marketing communication should respect human dignity in every form and expression and should avoid any form of discrimination, including that of gender”.
In Denmark, the Consumer Ombudsman, in its specific guidelines on gender discriminatory advertising, indicates that such practice occurs “..  if  a  gender  is  represented  in  a  derogatory  or contemptuous  manner;  if  nudity  or  eroticism  is  included  in  a manner  that  appears  derogatory  or contemptuous  to  the  relevant  gender;  the  advertisement  gives  the  impression  that  the  role  of  one gender is socially, financially, or culturally subordinate to the other gender; if the advertisement gives the impression that one gender is less competent, less intelligent, or less suited to perform tasks that both genders  can  perform  equally  well  physiologically;  or  if  the advertisement gives  the  impression that one gender has special negative personality traits or characteristics”.
In Finland, the Consumer Protection Act specifically prohibits gender discrimination in marketing, by requiring commercial communication not to result contrary to generally accepted social values and not to portray gender in an offensive way.
In Norway, the relevant regulation is the Marketing Control Act, which sets that marketers must “ensure that the marketing does not conflict with the equality of the sexes and that it does not exploit the body of one of the sexes or convey an offensive or derogatory appraisal of women or men.” To implement such requirement, the Consumer Ombudsman has offered the advertising industry additional guidelines, according to which marketing communication results as ‘gender discriminatory’, any time it is “contrary to the equality of the sexes or if it describes one sex in a negative way”.  These guidelines also indicate that an ad is ‘offensive’, if it presents an individual - of either sex - in more or less dressed situations, where women or men are represented as sex symbols or as eye-catchers without any connection or relevance to the product.  

Effectiveness of existing regulations: Are rules preventing gender stereotypes in advertising?

There are plenty of rules already in place to prevent gender discrimination in commercial communication. Are they effective? Apparently not, as a quick glimpse at the content of commercial communication currently diffused eloquently attests (just think of the so-called ‘soft-porn’ ads commonly in use in the fashion industry, where in most countries some of the major brands frequently rely on over the edge ads to gain attention).  
Rules are certainly important as they offer an instrument to react against stereotypes and gender discrimination in commercial communication. But before that I feel that something else must be done to address the problem effectively. ‘Mutual respect’ applied in a family’s daily life routine and taught to children from an early stadium, seems to me the key to a significant change. When Mom or Dad come home from a tiering day of work, one could show how set the table and to prepare the meal (to the extreme that Daddy turns the burner on and heats the water for the Pasta) all together, how to load the dishwasher and to get rid of the trash, irrespective of gender. In short, over ‘rules’, ‘education’ and ‘example’ will play an important role to overcome those deeply rooted stereotypes, which certain advertising contributes to keep alive.