Ads can’t change the world by themselves – that’s not their point – but they are far more effective if they reflect the world the audience aspires to. The ASA’s new rules help the industry to do this, argues Mike Teasdale.

I’m the father of a young lady, so understandably I’m sensitised to the issue of gender stereotyping. She is empowered to the max, courtesy of the rarefied bubble of wealth that we live in, but this issue still touches us because it’s everywhere you look.

A film done by my ex-colleagues at Lowe for the charity Inspiring the Future showed very powerfully how kids as young as 5 have already learned common gender stereotypes. Asked to draw people in job roles such as firefighters, surgeons and pilots, 61 of 66 primary school children drew a man rather than a woman. Somehow, it’s already in their young brains that certain jobs are for men not women.

And this stuff matters. Academic research into this topic clearly suggests that gender stereotyping leads to mental, physical and social harm. Children especially need protection from harmful gender stereotyping as they are more likely to internalise the messages they see.

So, with gender stereotyping still an issue in society, it’s imperative that we in advertising and marketing are not reinforcing the problem. But we are. Research by the Geena Davis Institute in 2017 showed that where characters in ads are shown as having jobs, 75% of them are men. Initiatives like the Gender Equality Measure, a metric that assesses whether the depictions of women and girls in ads are sufficiently nuanced, are to be welcomed.

This is why I am pleased that the Advertising Standards Authority (the independent regulator for advertising in the UK who tread a tricky path between protecting consumers and respecting the rights of companies to advertise their wares) has published new guidelines on how to portray men and women in advertising.

What these guidelines make clear is that it is no longer enough to ban ads that sexualise women and girls, or ads that suggest it is acceptable for young women to be unhealthily thin; what is needed now is also a tough line on ads that feature more everyday sexism. So, stereotypical depictions of gender role (e.g. women doing domestic chores v men leading business meetings, girls playing with dolls v boys playing football) or stereotypical gender characteristics (e.g. passive women, stupid men) or stereotypical gender conformity (e.g. men being ridiculed if they express emotion) are no longer OK.

This newly tightened net has caught its first two offenders. Ads for Philadelphia Cheese and the Volkswagen eGolf have been banned for breaching the code (frankly, they should also have been banned by the creative police in their respective agencies because they are both poor ads but that’s a different point).

The ad for Philadelphia features two dozy dads who are so obsessed with eating that they fail to spot their little ones being whisked away on a conveyer belt. Really?

The ad for Volkswagen features a woman doing not very much while men do things like mountaineering and space travel. It’s not as creatively lame as the Philadelphia ad but it’s just as bad on the gender stereotyping front because it depicts men as achievers and women as observers.

Many folks in ad land have bemoaned these bans but I am in favour of the sanction. There is still much to do to ensure gender-neutral values really shape society and advertising must play its role.

I’m not saying that advertising has a responsibility to change society. Advertising exists to sell goods and services, not to make the world a better place. But it does have a commercial responsibility to sell goods and services in the most effective manner and the most effective way to sell is to reflect the world your target audience aspires to. And neither of these two ads did that.

The best ads have always reflected changes in society. They may not create those changes, but they do reflect them. Advertising as a mirror not as a torch. Occasionally advertising does act like a torch. It tends to be in public education initiatives (e.g. “This Girl Can” for Sport England) but it can come from market-leader brands bitten by a strong social purpose that they know will also help sales (e.g. “Like a Girl” for Always).

Unilever, a pioneer in the use of brand purpose to sell product, understand the importance of this issue. They know that is not just a social imperative but that it’s good for business too. That’s why they have partnered with UN Women and other companies like Procter & Gamble, Facebook, Mars, Microsoft and Google to push the Unstereotype Alliance, a collective that aims to eradicate stereotypical portrayals of gender in advertising.

Good for them, I say. I know my daughter is more likely to buy from those companies as a direct result of initiatives like that. If only they made veggie rolls, they would have her custom for life!