14 June 2019 marked a historic day for the UK advertising industry: the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned gender stereotyping in advertising. The ASA highlighted the connection between harmful stereotypes and the restriction of people’s choices, aspirations and opportunities.
The guidelines gave the industry tangible examples of what to avoid in advertising, focusing on six key areas: roles, characteristics, mocking people for not conforming to stereotyping, sexualisation, objectification and body image.
The ban, however, drew criticism from some of the British public, with many declaring that it was excessive and controlling. Unsurprisingly, the ad industry also expressed consternation, as the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) announced that the rulings were ‘concerning’ and the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers warned that they could cause ‘confusion’ in the industry.
So, is it true that this ban is unnecessary and harmful? Ipsos MORI’s ‘Global Attitudes Towards Beauty’ study confirms that harmful gender stereotypes still exist. Global averages prove that, even today, men and women have very different ideas of beauty. A man’s financial (46% for males and 32% for females) and professional (48% for males and 36% for females) success contributes to his attractiveness considerably more than a woman’s. In contrast a woman’s physical appearance, such as her facial appearance (46% and 39%) and the appearance of her skin (42% and 36%), are considered significantly more important in making women attractive than in men.
The feminine beauty ideal, where physical attractiveness is viewed as one of women’s most important assets has been challenged recently by activists such as Jameela Jamil, who launched the ‘I Weigh’ movement. This online campaign tries to illustrate the other attributes a woman should be measured by, other than her weight. Further afield, South Korean women are also rebelling against their society’s rigid beauty standards with their ‘Escape the corset’ movement.
Meanwhile, there is also rising awareness of the harmful impact of societal expectations on men to embody the role of ‘provider’, and the pressures that brings. These pressures contribute to the poignant statistic that, in the UK, men are three times as likely to kill themselves than women, and suicide is the single biggest killer of men under 45, according to the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM).
The UK data uncovers something even more provocative: it is men who drive both stereotypes of men and women. For example, 34% of men believe a woman’s facial appearance is important, whereas just 24% of women believe this. Similarly, 38% of men assert that ‘sexiness’ is necessary in making a woman beautiful, whereas only 15% of women believe so.
Twenty-four per cent of British men are still more likely to believe the stereotypical ‘male ideal’ of financial success making a man attractive, while just 17% of women do. It is significant that this trend is also seen in other established economies. For instance, despite Sweden having the highest level of equality in the world, 21% of men believe financial success is important in making a man attractive, whereas only 12% of women think this. This may suggest that men subconsciously have more stereotypical expectations of gender than women.
This idea brings to light the disparity between men and women’s attitudes towards traditional gender expectations. The data shows progress needs to be made in freeing men’s preoccupation with fulfilling the ‘provider’ role, as well as liberating women from the pressure of one-dimensional beauty standards.
Men’s continued control over gender expectations in advertising, marketing and policy strategies means that, arguably, the focus of change should be on them. As the first few ads are banned, could the ASA ban go even further and expose the powerful impact of media on (particularly men’s) beliefs about gender standards? Either way, the research confirms that the ban is absolutely necessary.
With any luck, we’ll one day look back on this article and regard it as quaint and ridiculous to have had to even worry about this. But I fear we’re still a long way off.