These two commercials are the first to be banned by the U.K. ad watchdog's new set of rules to prevent the representation of gender stereotypes
The U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority has banned a commercial about cream cheese that may represent fathers as “unable to care for children as well as women” and a car commercial that depicts “woman being delicate or dainty.”
These two commercials are the first to be banned by the ad watchdog’s new set of rules enacted in June to prevent the representation of gender stereotypes.
“We’re already doing it in Canada to some degree,” said Chris Hersh a partner in the Competition, Antitrust & Foreign Investment Group at Cassels Brock & Blackwell LLP.
In total, 128 people complained to ASA about the Philadelphia Cream Cheese ad made by Mondelez U.K., one of the world’s largest snack companies.
The commercial starts with a woman passing a baby to a man. Another man shows up holding a baby in a car seat. The first man says, “New dad, too?” and the second man nods before they both become distracted by food passing on a conveyor belt.
The first man notices his baby had gone around the conveyor belt. He rushes after the baby and returns to the other dad with the infant before one of the fathers say, “let’s not tell mum.”
Mondelez U.K. defended the commercial, according to the Advertising Standards Authority, saying it was meant to be comical and the “same key message about the desirability of the product would not be altered” if the men were women.
The company also said the ad “perpetuated a positive image of men with a responsible and active role in childcare in modern society,” emphasizing the two fathers were new parents.
The ad relied on the stereotype that men were unable to care for children as well as women
“The men were portrayed as somewhat hapless and inattentive, which resulted in them being unable to care for the children effectively,” ASA wrote, mentioning it did consider the fact that the parents were portrayed inexperienced as inexperienced and the “Let’s not tell mum” quip is often said jokingly.
When considering how the mom handed the father their baby in the first scene and the “Let’s not tell mum” line, ASA said “the ad relied on the stereotype that men were unable to care for children as well as women and implied that the fathers had failed to look after the children properly because of their gender.”
ASA received three complaints about Volkswagen U.K.’s commercial which starts with a shot of a sleeping woman next to a man turning off a light in a tent perched on a jagged cliffside.
The next scene shows two male astronauts in a spaceship with the text “we can achieve anything” followed by a male para-athlete running.
The commercial ends on a shot on a woman reading a book next to a baby stroller as a Volkswagen eGolf silently zooms by.
The complaints alleged the ad “perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes by showing men engaged in adventurous activities in contrast to a woman in a care-giving role.”
ASA says Volkswagen replied, noting the ad focuses on adapting to challenges and “did not think that a climber, astronaut, or athlete competing in a Paralympic sport were gender stereotypical roles or occupations.”
Taking care of children was a role that was stereotypically associated with women
It added that the characters were shown performing actions that were not stereotypical to one gender and their actions were not extreme, while their environments were.
“The fact that the female climber was asleep (in the tent) could be said to demonstrate not that she was passive, but that she was relaxed and comfortable in a hostile environment,” read Volkswagen’s defence.
ASA highlighted the juxtaposition of men in “extraordinary environments and carrying out adventurous activities with women who appeared passive or engaged in a stereotypical care-giving role.”
Volkswagen also defended the last scene of the woman with the stroller saying that “welcoming a newborn into the family was a life changing experience.”
The ruling, however, states although parenting is no easy task, “taking care of children was a role that was stereotypically associated with women.”
“In context, the final scene (the only one that featured the product) gave the impression that the scenario had been used to illustrate the adaptation and resulting characteristic of the car – so quiet that it did not wake the baby or register with the mother – rather than as a further representation of achievement, particularly as the setting was relatively mundane compared to the other scenarios,” ASA wrote.
I doubt that a Standards Council would find that either of the advertisements recently considered by the ASA would be found to violate the Code under the standards applicable in Canada
Hersh says the ads could potentially raise issues based on Canada’s guidelines, regulated by Ad Standards.
“Even under existing gender portrayal guidelines, it would be a legitimate complaint that ad standards would have to consider,” he said.
Catherine Bate, Ad Standards’ chief legal and policy officer, says every complaint is evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but Canada’s rules are different.
“I doubt that a Standards Council would find that either of the advertisements recently considered by the ASA would be found to violate the Code under the standards applicable in Canada,” she said.
Canada’s guidelines, which were last revised in 1993, state some clauses are particularly directed to the portrayal of women.
“Men and women are not at equal risk of being negatively portrayed,” reads the policy.
It notes men and women must be equally represented in terms of authority, decision-making, sexuality, violence, diversity and language.
If you go looking for it, you'll find it anywhere
Bate says an ad for house maintenance services in Vancouver was removed last year after only featuring one person — a woman — in the kitchen.
“The overall impression created by the ad was that ‘a woman’s place is in the kitchen,’ and the ad was found demeaning to women,” she said.
Michael Binetti, a partner at Affleck, Greene McMurtry LLP, says it’s all about how the laws are interpreted.
“Is it a literal interpretation, in which case you could find many parts of most ads (to be inappropriate),” he said.
“I don’t think we’ve done that in Canada. I hope that’s not what we do in the future. If you go looking for it, you’ll find it anywhere using an extremely literal interpretation of the guidelines.”
A Nestlé U.K. commercial for Buxton bottled water featuring a female ballet dancer, a male drummer and a male rower also received five complaints, but ASA did not nix the commercial.
The watchdog did say ballet was stereotypically a female activity, while drumming and sports were normally associated with males, the ad focussed on the individual’s characteristics, “namely equal levels of drive and talent which had allowed them to excel.”
“We also noted that each skill depicted — ballet, drumming and rowing — was shown to be equally difficult and demanding,” read ASA’s ruling.
Hersh said advertisers in Canada may not have to worry, but they should be cautious when making commercials, especially on the heels of the U.K. rulings.
“The takeaway shouldn’t be that you can’t create humourous ads, but when it comes to gender portrayal, this sends a signal that advertisers need to be more thoughtful,” Hersh said.
Ad Standards says it will review its own guide next year.
Belgium, France, Finland, Greece, India, Norway and South Africa also have rules on gender stereotypes in advertising.