Jul 20 '17

Sex May Sell. But Sexism? Not So Much.

Earlier this week, the U.K.’s independent advertising regulator, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), announced that they’re taking a tougher line on gender stereotypes in ads. Their goal is to “make sure modern society is better represented” in the country’s advertising.

The ASA says that specific forms of gender stereotypes in ads can contribute to harm for adults and children by limiting how people see themselves, how others see them, and therefore limit life decisions they take. They’re also going to toughen rules on ads that present activities as only appropriate for one gender or another, or that mock those who do not conform to stereotypical gender roles.

Generally speaking, I think it’s a great idea. Everybody, no matter what they do for a living, should avoid stereotyping. But folks in the ad business, who influence millions of people every day with their words and pictures, and who are very skilled at persuasion, need to work even harder at it.

A stereotype is a shortcut; often a dangerous shortcut. Maybe this regulation will make ad agencies work harder to create something more compelling, as well as less familiar and expected.

Here’s an example of the kind of commercial that would be banned in the UK: a TV spot for baby formula showing a little girl growing up to be a ballerina and a little boy becoming a mathematician.

Stereotypical, yes. And conceptually lazy, too.

But the best “regulator” of any ads that cross the line, however, may be consumer outrage expressed in the form of social media. That’s what sunk Pepsi’s ad featuring Kendall Jenner preventing a riot by handing a policeman a Pepsi. I won’t show the spot, but instead, the spot-on spoof by SNL.


People in the ad business push out countless messages a day on behalf of our clients. We should push ourselves to do it in a way that’s positive.

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