Is it the job of advertising to portray society as we wish it to be? There’s a new UK rule that advertising cannot show harmful gender stereotypes. In its first month, complaints were upheld against two TV ads. 128 people objected to the way this ad for Philadelphia cream cheese showed men as incompetent carers for the baby, while three people reported this Volkswagen ad for giving all the adventurous and successful roles to men while the little lady sits with a pram.

The various public bodies that police advertising standards have always demanded that an advertisement be “legal, decent, honest and truthful”. Showing someone in a bad light is perfectly consistent with those standards. The most effective advertising is built on something we recognise, a truth about human nature. Stereotypes are a useful shorthand, widely understood and quickly communicated. Usually they contain at least a shred of truth. That’s why that Philadelphia ad came to be made. So this really is a step into social engineering.

While part of me welcomes this ruling, my professional self is uneasy at the implications, that we cannot reflect reality. Already the realities that are shown are carefully controlled. UK retailers’ blockbuster Christmas ads can look as if they’ve worked to a quota on ethnic diversity. But although close to 20% of the UK population have a disability – one in ten people have impaired mobility – you don’t see that much on TV. When disability is shown, as in the Maltesers ads, it’s portrayed in an over-the-top way that makes it the centre of the action instead of the disabled person just being there as a person. Attempting to broaden the range of society which is portrayed on tv is welcome, but we have a long way to go before it stops appearing effortful and just seems normal.

What saddens me about the two complaints is the numbers. It’s women who are most often stereotyped, as home-makers, shoppers, cooks and care-givers, and thus not shown in professional roles. Yet it seems that many more people object to men being shown as incompetent than care that women are being portrayed as limited to traditional roles. Our social conditioning leads to general acceptance of such sex-based stereotypes, and hence does not immediately see harm in reinforcing them. It seems negativity about men is more likely to be noticed than negativity about women. So if this new approach to advertising is to be effective, the regulator must ignore the numbers and set its own standards.

That advertising can be effective is not in doubt – otherwise it wouldn’t need to be policed. This new ruling acknowledges the power of advertising, and challenges marketing professionals to use it to help change our world. Is that our job? You decide.

Comment, Thought leadership | September 2019