Should we ban sexist ads?

Two ads banned by a watchdog were so mildly offensive that they wouldn’t even cause a Twitter storm, says Pat Fitzpatrick

Should we ban sexist ads?

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in the UK decided that the public should not be allowed to watch two ads by Volkswagen and Philadelphia Cheese because they reinforced harmful gender stereotypes. Why not let the ads run and wait for the Twitter backlash? You won’t be waiting long, the Twitter backlash is never more than 30 seconds away.

If, as the ASA claims, the ads are sexist, then the quick-to-anger brigade would have hauled the advertisers into the spotlight, found them guilty of being un-woke and forced them to bin the ads themselves. That’s how it works now. That’s how you make sure that brands get with the progressive program.

This is good. Man-dogs like Trump and Boris might be able to dominate the political sphere, but big brands have to deal with a broader consensus, so their ads usually focus on the brighter side of humanity. Lapse into lazy stereotype and your share price and marketing manager’s career prospects are in a race down the jacks.

But here’s the thing — it has to be a big, foolish ‘make sure to have a cocktail ready for your husband when he gets home from work’ lapse into a stereotype.

Mildly sexist is no good because Twitter doesn’t deal in mildly. You need something like the 2017 ad Audi ran in China, claiming that choosing the right car was as important as choosing the right wife, showing the bride’s future mother-in-law checking that she had decent teeth. (And you thought it was just Irish mammies.)

Or if that wasn’t sexist enough, try the Co-op ad for chocolate in the UK, saying ‘ Be a good egg — treat your daughter for doing the washing up.’ Both of those did damage to the brands and sent out a clear message to advertisers to wake up and get woke. The problem with the two ads banned by the ASA is they were on the mild side of mildly sexist — chances are they wouldn’t have created much of a storm. It’s almost like the ASA was looking for something to do.

The main problem with the banned Volkswagen ad is that it feels like you’ve seen it before. It starts with a guy zipping up a tent over a rousing string-quartet tune that you’d hear in a BBC period drama, cuts to two guys working in a space station, then a para-athlete doing the long jump, and finally a woman sitting on a park bench next to pram as an electric Volkswagen Golf glides by. It’s basically guys doing stuff and a woman being a Mom. Two things this ad would not make me do: 1, Complain about it on Twitter. 2, Buy a Golf. (So maybe the ASA did Volkswagen a favour.) The Philadelphia ad shows two Dads standing by a food conveyor belt, like one you’d see in a sushi restaurant, except this one has cream cheese snacks, for reasons that aren’t immediately clear.

One of them is so enthralled by the prospect of a cream cheese snack that he absent-mindedly puts his baby on the conveyor belt. The little child goes around and around. That’s it, really. Again, I reckon the ASA did the makers of Philadelphia a favour by preventing it from being shown to a wider audience.

Apparently 128 people complained that it perpetuated a harmful stereotype by showing that men are incapable of looking after children. Sorry now, but if that’s a good enough reason to ban something from TV, then it’s bye-bye to The Simpsons and Peppa Pig. I wouldn’t leave my bike in the care of Homer Simpson or Daddy Pig — but then I get it’s supposed to be a joke.

As Homer once said, it’s funny because it’s true. A lot of men I know aren’t great at looking after kids, possibly on purpose, because the better you get at minding kids, the more often you’ll be asked to do it.

Banning something because it alludes to this is crazy. When it comes to making the world a better place, let social media take the strain. Because with Brexit coming down the tracks, British public servants have better things to do than banning ads for cream cheese.

Advertisers are still depicting males and females in limiting and idiotic ways and Rita de Brún says that the negative impact of such commercials has got real world implications

Should we ban sexist ads?

Gender is a big issue. Strike that. It’s the big issue. One that underscores the very essence of who we are. Misunderstanding, ignorance and intolerance as to its nature, breadth, and reality, has led to suffering, lives half-lived, oppression, inequality and suicide. For these reasons, the banning this month of gender stereotyping adverts for Volkswagen and Philadelphia cheese should be applauded.

There is no place for the mind-bending claptrap that is gender stereotyping in a world in which gender equality remains so far out of reach for so many. To deny that, to suggest opponents of such ads are humourless or intolerant is to miss the point. These ads are not only not funny, but they’re also destructive, limiting and potentially lethal. They hold back awareness, understanding and acceptance of the very nature of gender - of what it is and what it could be.

They suppress and submerge the most vulnerable and impressionable amongst us in a misleading fog, one that portrays skewed ideas, one that works to prevent them from blossoming into whoever it is they really are.

Gender stereotyping ads of old were in-your-face offensive. Ads with captions such as ‘Belvedere always goes down smoothly,’ words that accompanied an image of a distressed female being grabbed from behind by a smirking male. Or the Tipalet cigarettes advert, the caption for which was: ‘Blow in her face and she’ll follow you anywhere.’ Or the one that read: ‘Keep her where she belongs’ while depicting a half naked female strewn across the floor, gazing at a shoe.

Advertisers and marketers are too clever to dish up ads like that today. But by portraying women with prams and dads leaving babies on conveyor belts, they’re still delivering rot, still depicting males and females in limiting, idiotic, 2D ways.

There’s no denying the negative impact they have, the role they likely played in the gender pay gap and the dearth of stay-at-home dads. Even so, limiting depictions of males and females is not the worst aspect of these ads. Their gravest failing is their failure to depict the truth that gender is not binary.

This matters hugely. By failing to present gender realistically, inclusively and fairly, individuals suffer and fail to flourish. Society loses.

Research published in the journal Pediatrics shows transgender boys face the highest risk for suicide amongst adolescents of all genders. Transgender people face a disproportionate risk for suicide, with lifetime rates of suicide attempt of up to 52%.

Transgender Equality Network Ireland research shows that transgender and gender-variant youths experience high levels of bullying and discrimination in Irish schools as a result of their gender identity and gender expression. Stigmatisation, exclusion and dropping out are other commonplace experiences.

I’ve no doubt that gender stereotyping ads play a role in the ferocious suffering of these kids. Because they’re not depicted in ads, it’s as though they don’t exist or belong.

Like it or not, ads are a powerful societal influence. We’re impacted by what we see, read and hear. We can protect ourselves by noting the content. The portrayal of males and females. The absence of variant genders. The dearth of two mother families, crossdressing brothers, gender-neutral aunts.

Tolerating adverts that portray humankind in whitewashed, misguided ways is an exercise in self-harm. It wounds our young. It makes it more difficult for them to express who they are. It keeps their truth and their potential suppressed and stunted, to their detriment and that of societal progression. It makes us complicit in the promotion of inequality.

We can’t trust advertisers to do the right thing. In 2018 Kantar research, 76% of female and 88% of male marketers said they believed they avoided gender stereotypes when creating adverts. The same study showed 98% of those targeted for baby products, laundry, and household cleaners were female.

We must ban the ads that hideously support the false portrayal of the true nature and potential of humankind, in all its shapes, colours, demeanours, and orientations.

By failing to do so, we fail the vulnerable, the weak and the many who crave nothing more than normalcy and acceptance.

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