As well as shifting product or changing behaviour, advertising has the power to hold a mirror up to society and show people their potential, represent the diversity of people and their experiences today, and challenge injustices.
Nike’s "Dream crazier" tells young girls to dream big; the #TimeTo campaigns highlight sexual harassment in the workplace; and Gillette’s "The best a man can get" attempted to show just how "woke" men can be.
However some brands have used this power to reinforce harmful or damaging gender stereotypes, such as women being unable to park a car or fathers being unable to look after their children on their own.
So at the end of last year, the Committees of Advertising Practice, which writes and maintains the UK’s advertising codes, announced it would introduce a ban on ads that present gender stereotypes that "are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence". This ban, which will be policed by the ASA, came into effect on Friday.
So will the ban really challenge outdated tropes and help get rid of gender stereotyping in advertising?
Executive creative director, HeyHuman
The new rules will only be effective if they encompass both genders. With men’s mental health issues on the rise, and with young men being increasingly confused about the role they should play in society, it’s clear that our industry needs to stand up and help articulate some of the challenges of modern masculinity.
We need to remember that our work can be a force for good to empower social change, and we have a responsibility to move away from stereotypes, in order to deliver creative campaigns that really resonate with audiences.
Chief executive, Creative Equals
What should have been a watershed moment for the industry seems to have been met with reservation, with one prominent female executive creative director saying this mandate "limits creative expression". For us, this would never have been necessary if the industry had moved faster on redressing the balance of those who curate, arbitrate and direct creative work.
The guidelines are a superficial "fix" for what is a systemic issue. For decades, gender has been seen through the lens of the majority: white, straight men who come at creativity from their own (sometimes unconscious) bias, which is played out in the work, bought by clients and ends up shaping the culture we see. The deeper work is for every creative director of all genders to understand the roots of power, privilege and bias, and for every team to start understanding how to engage different points of view. That is the industry’s real mandate.
Managing director at New Macho, BBD Perfect Storm
These new rules are very welcome. Since they were announced, marketers have become much more aware of what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to the portrayal of gender. And increasingly we are seeing the industry follow the lead of the ASA, calling out examples of crass and offensive stereotyping. A number of high street brands have fallen short.
Brands are still portraying men either as aloof and hyper-competitive, as tanned Adonises, or as dorks and figures of fun. I believe this is contributing to the mental health crisis we are seeing among men. With the ASA’s support, brands can be part of the solution, creating ads that portray the subtlety, nuance and range of the modern male experience.
So yes, I do think they will have a real impact.
Chief executive, Quiet Storm
While I applaud the new ASA rules, the fact remains that undoing generations of deeply ingrained and often unconscious stereotyping is not going to happen overnight.
Despite an increased level of public outcry and industry focus around inappropriate representation, brands are still getting it wrong. It’s going to take a combination of greater levels of consciousness, attitudinal and cultural change, both on a personal and organisational level, before this becomes second nature. But, in the meantime, at least this new ruling will take away some of the grey areas as to what may be subjectively deemed as acceptable.
Chief executive, Quiet Storm
It makes me sad to think in 2019 we need "guidance" on how to represent gender in our work, but clearly some do. The new rules only highlight this; my worry would be that would those breaking the rules really care?
Of course advertising shouldn’t cause harm but sometimes it should make us feel uncomfortable. We need to educate, inspire and entertain, but sometimes it’s good to be provocative. Wrapping people in cotton wool or sugar coating things can be equally dangerous.
Managing Director, BBH
I think the ban is progress and that can only be a good thing. But in all honesty I don’t know what is more worrying; the fact that it has taken this long to enforce such a rule, or that we even need a rule in the first place.
If advertisers want to speak to me, they won’t find me in the kitchen. Well, maybe only at parties.
Chief executive, BMB
As a man who has always found a Yorkie a bit chunky for my tastes, as the proud son of a mum who never went to Iceland and as a person who has always wanted the hands that do dishes to be as soft as my face, I can’t but applaud these changes. Stereotypes (gender or otherwise) get under the skin and between the synapses. They limit the creative possibilities of who and how you can be. Stereotypes are the cousins of cliché and we will be a better, more imaginative business if we go to war on both of them.