Could a new rule make advertisers dump stereotypes?

The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) is consulting on a new rule, aiming to tackle gender stereotyping in advertising. Here’s how we’re planning to respond – you can submit your own thoughts to the consultation until Thursday 26 July (tips below).

The CAP and BCAP codes set out the principles that the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) uses to judge advertising. Following the ASA’s report last year, which gathered evidence of the damage caused by gender stereotyping, ASA now intends to come up with a workable new rule and supporting guidance to act against ads that cause harm or offence due to stereotyping.

While we welcome the proposed new rule, we feel the proposed supporting guidance can do more to promote better practice. And we recognise that the real solution lies in more creativity from the ad and toy industries.

What is the new rule being proposed?

The proposed new rule would be:

“Advertisements must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.”

The supporting guidance includes the following:

“Ads may feature people undertaking gender-stereotypical roles e.g. a woman cleaning the house or a man doing DIY, or displaying gender-stereotypical characteristics e.g. a man being assertive or a woman being sensitive to others’ needs, but they should take care to avoid suggesting that stereotypical roles or characteristics are:

  • always uniquely associated with one gender;
  • the only options available to one gender;
  • never carried out or displayed by another gender.”

“Ads should avoid mocking people for not conforming to gender stereotypes, including in a context that is intended to be humorous.”

And specifically in relation to children:

“Ads can be targeted at and feature a specific gender but should take care not to explicitly convey that a particular children’s product, pursuit, activity, including choice of play or career, is inappropriate for one or another gender.

You can find out more about the consultation on the ASA website. Please do contribute – we’ve shared some tips below if you’d like to make a submission.

Proposed new rule: our verdict

We’re really pleased that in the report Depictions, perceptions and harm, and by proposing this rule, the ASA and the CAP have acknowledged that gender stereotyping, repeated and reinforced in marketing and advertising, causes real harm to individuals, particularly to children, and to wider society. This is at the core of our campaign message: that telling children that certain toys, activities, personality traits, interests or jobs are only for men or women cuts them off from things they would enjoy, and prevents them from developing in a rounded way.

We’re happy to see the rule supported by a proposed guiding principle ruling out ads that mock people for not conforming to stereotypes – this would give grounds for complaint about ads like the Littlewoods spot, where a Mum buys a new (green) bike for her son after overhearing him being teased about riding his sister’s pink hand-me-down.

We’re happy with the wording of the rule, but we would like to see stronger wording in the guiding principles to a) tackle the fact that the vast majority of the stereotyping in ads aimed at children is implicit rather than explicit, and b) accept the harm caused by the repetition of narrow gender stereotypes across multiple ads.

Outlawing ‘explicit’ messages doesn’t go far enough

In our research into toy ads in 2015 we found that boys and girls were largely shown playing separately, with very different colour and sound palettes, language and levels of activity. (Girls were mostly shown indoors, and largely inactive unless they were dancing.)

words used in TV toy ads featuring boys. Most prominent: battle, control, power, adventure, blast, build, action, launch, rescue

We’d like the guiding principles to be reworded to acknowledge that implicit exclusion is also important and harmful, and should be avoided. Suggested text as follows, our addition in bold:

“Ads can be targeted at and feature a specific gender but should take care not to explicitly convey or strongly imply that a particular children’s product, pursuit, activity, including choice of play or career, is inappropriate for one or another gender.

The first supporting example for this principle is currently:

  • Ads shouldn’t explicitly depict members of a specific gender being excluded from or dismissive of an activity. This doesn’t prevent an ad from depicting children undertaking an activity stereotypically associated with their gender, using colours, language, music or settings which are also stereotypically associated with that gender.

We think this doesn’t go far enough and would have no effect on the highly gendered commercials we reviewed in our TV ads research in 2015 and our research into toy catalogues in 2016 and 2017.

We’d like to suggest adding:

  • …but care should be taken to avoid implicitly excluding boys or girls by only using such colours, language etc, or by including only girls or boys in a group of more than 3 or 4 children, without good reason.

This would give grounds for complaint against a catalogue which included many pages of baby dolls without featuring a single image of a boy, for example, and would encourage the good practice of assuming that any larger group should be mixed. This reflects the changes in practice already underway – see the Nerf example mentioned below.

The second supporting example looks at directly contrasting boys and girls (our additions in bold, replacing the text in square brackets).

  • An ad that seeks to emphasise the contrast between a boy’s stereotypical personality (e.g. daring) with a girl’s stereotypical personality (e.g. caring) ‘is likely to be problematic’ [needs to be handled with care]. [Explicit labelling of children that contrasts] ‘Contrasting’ stereotypical characteristics in a way that reinforces perceptions of what children can or cannot be, because of their gender, is more likely to be problematic.

These changes would give grounds for complaint against an ad which directly contrasts boys’ and girl’s behaviour, or where boys’ mastery of toy weapons, tricks or remote control vehicles is contrasted with a girl needing to be rescued/being ‘grossed out’, or putting her appearance before action. Again, this reflects the changes already underway, as seen in the Wild Pets and Fingerlings example below.

To take a specific example, shared in our facebook discussion by supporter Micha Luna – this (French) ad shows how implicit stereotyping can be very strong even within a single ad, presenting a stark contrast between the boy actively playing pirates outdoors and the girl passively playing princess in her pink bedroom. Would the ad have been less successful if the pirate had joined the tea party? Or the princess had run away to sea?

As Micha says: “In my opinion one specific ad like this one can be harmful in itself, because children are very sensitive to how boys and girls are represented, they actively look for representations and try to see if they fit in. After all, they are only starting to build their identity. When girls see a representation of a little girl playing quietly and wearing a beautiful princess dress, they may want to look like that, they may think that they’re going to be valued and loved more if they’re the “perfect little princess”. Same for boys who might think they’ll only be valued if they’re bold and fearless.”

Have your say – please contribute to the consultation!

We’d love to know your thoughts – do comment below or join the discussion over on facebook. And please do consider making your own submission in relation to stereotypes and children, or on the other topics covered, such as body image – the consultation is open to anyone to contribute. Here are our tips:

– welcome the new rule – you can add examples of ads you think problematic as evidence, or how you see stereotypes affecting children you know;
– welcome the wording;
– ask that the guidance in relation to children be made stronger to tackle the fact that implicit exclusion is the main problem, is harmful, and is easily tackled. Again, do add examples of ads you think are good or bad to support your points.

Contribute to the consultation now

More creativity from the toy and ad industries is the real answer

Of course the real problem is not at the level of the individual advert, it’s the cumulative effect of many ads and promotions using the same stereotyped scenarios, sound and visual cues and messages. So while a rule outlawing ‘worst practice’ sets a useful principle in place, the real answer lies in better practice and more innovation from creative people within the toy and ad industries.

Example: this Sunday morning, over two consecutive ad breaks on the same channel, we saw three ads with the scenario ‘boy makes girl/woman scream with gross/scary thing’. The individual ads: harmless enough; but three in half an hour presents a very clear picture.

In the image below we’ve also outlined three additional things retailers can do to make their ads and catalogues more inclusive.

Dear Retailers. In your next catalogue we'd love to see 1/ More mixed groups of boys and girls 2/ More examples of children playing outside of narrow stereotypes 3/ An end to 'all girl' and 'all boy' spreads. More info

And there’s every reason for them to do so – the ASA’s own research and focus groups found that consumers in all age groups found stereotyped ads annoying and boring. Doing better doesn’t need to be difficult, and there are encouraging signs it’s already happening, from Unilever’s Unstereotype initiative, through to the new photography we’re starting to see in toy catalogues.

Take these two ads:

In the first, the ‘Wild Pets’ clip, the boy makes his sister (chatting on the phone) and mother (baking him a cake) scream with his robot spider. The second, ‘Fingerlings Untamed Raptors’ ad, relies on many of the same sound and visual cues – rock music, excitable male voiceover, black/fluorescent colour scheme, but it updates the formula: a boy makes a girl scream with his dinosaur fingerling, but then a mixed group (all in football kit) all enjoy surprising their male coach with the toy – the second girl is presented as part of the team, and in on the joke, not the butt of it. The first clip is around three years old, the second relatively new.

Similarly, the Nerf ads we reviewed in our TV ads research in 2016 featured groups of up to four boys, with girls shown separately in the girl-targeted ‘Rebelle’ product lines. This new ad spot from 2018 features the classic Nerf colour schemes, soundtrack and look and feel, but with a mixed group.

In our research into TV toy ads we found that it was not uncommon to see a boy in an ad targeting girls (for products such as cute interactive pets); we’d like to see more ads showing boys and girls playing together, just like they do in real life.

Contribute to the consultation now


  1. Courtney Adams

    I support this measure to curtail/eliminate gender stereotypes in advertising.

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