Should advertising regulators enforce wokeness?

Steve Szentesi argues advertising watchdog oversteps in banning “harmful” ads

Should advertising regulators enforce wokeness?
Steve Szentesi

In an interesting development, two ads were recently banned under new gender stereotyping in advertising rules recently implemented by the U.K. Advertising Standards Authority.

The ASA, the U.K.’s member-based independent advertising regulator, introduced its new gender stereotyping advertising rules in June after consultations with industry and a report entitled Depictions, Perceptions and Harm. The ASA’s new rule, which applies to all broadcast and non-broadcast media, including online claims and social media, prohibits gender stereotypes in advertising “that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.”

The first ad banned by the ASA, for Volkswagen’s eGolf electric car, portrayed man closing a flap on a tent perched on a steep cliff face while a female climber sleeps, two male astronauts floating in a space capsule and a male Paralympic track-and-field athlete long-jumping with the accompanying slogan “When we learn to adapt, we can achieve anything.” The ad closed with an eGolf car gliding silently by a woman with a stroller, sitting on a park bench.

In the second ad, for Mondelēz International’s Philadelphia Cream Cheese, two new fathers are portrayed taking their children to a restaurant, with dishes on a conveyor belt. Both are distracted by cream cheese dishes and accidentally lose them on the belt. The clip closes with the line: “let’s not tell mum.”

According to the ASA’s ruling, the first ad depicted “a man being adventurous juxtaposed with a woman being delicate or dainty [and was] unlikely to be acceptable.” The ASA also “concluded that the ad presented gender stereotypes in a way that was likely to cause harm and therefore breached the Code.” Volkswagen Group UK responded that its ad was intended to depict adapting to challenges and did not think that a climber, astronaut or Paralympic athlete were gender-stereotypical.

The ASA’s view in its second ruling, is that the cream cheese ad “relied on the stereotype that men were unable to care for children as well as women.” Mondelēz UK’s response was that it has deliberately chosen two new fathers to avoid the stereotype of two new mothers with healthcare responsibilities and that it merely meant to show fathers distracted by its cream cheese.

Both of the ASA’s decisions read slightly like graduate school sociology papers. In its cream cheese decision, for example, while the ASA claimed to recognize the concept of humor (“we acknowledged the action was intended to be light-hearted and comical”), it sternly cautioned that it “did not consider that the use of humor in the ad mitigated the effect of the harmful stereotype … [that] was central to it, because the humor derived from the audiences’ familiarity with the gender stereotype being portrayed.” 

Babies going in circles on a conveyor belt with fathers distracted by cream cheese, harmful?  Obviously.

The ASA’s Volkswagen decision is equally didactically earnest. It declares:

“By juxtaposing images of men in extraordinary environments and carrying out adventurous activities with women who appeared passive or engaged in a stereotypical care-giving role, we considered that the ad directly contrasted stereotypical male and female roles and characteristics in a manner that gave the impression that they were exclusively associated with one gender. We concluded that the ad presented gender stereotypes in way that was likely to cause harm and therefore breached the Code.”

A male mountaineer zipping up a tent flap while his (presumably equally intrepid) female companion sleeps: harmful? Also obvious, at least to the ASA.

Should brands market their products using stereotypes, gender related or otherwise? Of course not – it’s bad social form and bad business. The real question, however, is whether regulators, including in Canada, should be analyzing brands’ marketing strategies from a sociological perspective. To put it another way, in addition to being accurate should advertising also be required to be woke?

We already have a fairly well-known mechanism for regulating potentially offensive advertising – the market. As an advertiser in the age of the raging Twitter-verse and perpetual social media dissection, discipline for a company whose ads consumers find controversial or offensive is often rapid and relentless (a recent example being the wide-spread debate in reaction to Gillette’s “the best men can be” ad featuring a large cast of highly woke modern men).    

It also strikes me as slightly unnerving to give apparently over-earnest and, at least in the ASA’s case, apparently slightly humour-challenged regulators the power to ban ads that in their view “harms” society (assuming, of course, that such harm in the context of consumer advertising could ever actually be meaningfully quantified, which seems rather doubtful in any event).

Take the Volkswagen ad as an example.  Would it have been cured if the roles in the opening scene were reversed? What if the female climber zipped the tent flap while the male climber slept? Would that have inferred that the male climber was stereotypically lazy – the proverbial sofa-snoozing male – leaving the female climber to mind the tent? Or would two female climbers have cured the ad if the male astronaut and disabled male long jumper remained?

Or in the cream cheese ad, would it remain “harmful” to society to depict two women distracted by cream cheese sandwiches while their children circled on a conveyor belt (as a stereotypical depiction of females as caregivers)? Or would two men distracted by sandwiches while a female watched the children be equally stereotypical for both genders?  It isn’t difficult to envision many scenarios illustrating the potential absurdity of such rules or their regulatory overreach.

Canadian advertising law and regulators have, to date, sensibly focused on what certainly does need to be enforced – accurate and truthful product claims. 

Canada’s Ad Standards, for example, which is the Canadian equivalent to the UK’s ASA, also enforces an advertising code. Its Code of Advertising Standards, however, largely focuses on substantive aspects of false and deceptive advertising. The federal Competition Act, similarly, both prohibits literally false or misleading claims and regulates a range of other marketing practices, largely from accuracy and disclosure perspectives.

So what about banning cream cheese ads that insufficiently juxtapose gender equality with conveyor-belt humor? Or auto ads with unequal portrayals of rock-climbing proficiency? It seems to me that the market, not regulators, is the better arbiter of woke. And of course, for disciplining brands that get it wrong, there is of course always that thing called Twitter.

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