Girls play with Barbie dolls while boys hone their superhero skills. These are images that play over and over again in the living rooms of children around the world. Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority has concluded that commercials that show clear gender bias could be harmful and have issued a new report on what needs to change. The report concludes that there needs to be a tougher line taken with commercials that show stereotyped gender roles. The report came about following the publication of an ad in 2015 by Protein World that caused a public uproar.

It showed a bikini clad woman with words that asked if you were beach body ready.

Gender roles in the media

Because the media is such a major part of our daily lives, its portrayal of gender roles has a significant impact on social norms. It starts with what young children see in the advertisements that are introduced into their programming. Toy ads often push specific male or female roles where boys play with action figures, cars and construction equipment while girls bake, play with dolls and play dress up.

There have been changes in advertising in many countries in the western world where we now see men changing diapers and doing laundry, however, women are still being portrayed in stereotypical gender roles in the media and commercials.

Women are still shown as the major caregivers for children and the ones who do the grocery shopping and major household tasks. They are also shown as the objects of desire for men, concerned with preserving their beauty which is often associated with being thin. Men are also subject to negative stereotyping as seen in many beer commercials.

Unacceptable stereotypes

Not all stereotyping in advertising is considered unacceptable but when ads suggest that only certain activities are applicable to a certain gender the Advertising Standards Authority found that it could be problematic. If for example, a commercial shows a woman cleaning and a man mowing the lawn, there is really nothing wrong with that.

However, the ASA would consider one unacceptable that shows a woman being the only one responsible for cleaning up a family mess and the man is shown as unable to perform these tasks.

Targeting ads that reinforce assumptions

The Advertising Standards Authority will be getting serious with commercials that shame those who do not conform to gender conceptions or reinforce those roles that present a cost for society, individuals and the economy. New standards would look at the extent to which stereotypes reinforce assumptions limiting how people view themselves and how they are viewed by others. The ASA feels that when ads portray people in ways that reinforce old fashioned stereotypical assumptions on gender roles, it can result in unfair consequences for people.

Britain has taken a bold step towards the elimination of harmful Gender Stereotyping in advertising. It will be interesting to see if other countries follow its lead and crack down on this type of advertising whenever or wherever it occurs. While the US has strong guidelines concerning false advertising, there are no rules on gender stereotyping. Advertising Standards in Canada does have broad guidelines on gender portrayal in advertising but there is no ban in place.