New Socio-Legal Research on Harmful Gender Stereotypes in Advertising

Photo by Joshua Earle

Dr. Alexandros Antoniou and Dr. Dimitris Akrivos, Lecturers in Media Law, University of Essex

A year after the introduction of the UK Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) new rule on gender stereotyping, a new study evaluates the regulator’s approach to depictions of harmful gender stereotypes in advertisements.

Dr Alexandros Antoniou and Dr Dimitris Akrivos from the School of Law are the authors of ‘Gender portrayals in advertising: stereotypes, inclusive marketing and regulation’. Their study, which was recently published in the Journal of Media Law, a leading journal in the field, offers an in-depth socio-legal analysis of the ASA’s modern practice which systematises for the first time the regulator’s rulings in the field of gender stereotyping.

For a long time, academic research has highlighted the impact gender stereotypical advertising images can have on people’s aspirations, professional performance and mental well-being. In response to long-standing concerns around the matter, the ASA introduced in June 2019 a new advertising rule and guidance into its harm and offensiveness framework. The new rule, which came into effect on 14 June 2019, states: ‘Advertisements must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence’. Academic discussion has not until now queried whether the actions taken by the ASA constitute a satisfactory response to the problem.

Dr. Antoniou and Dr. Akrivos had previously analysed on the International Forum for Responsible Media Blog the first ads to be banned under the new ASA gender-stereotyping rules, including the Volkswagen’s ad, which promoted the manufacturer’s eGolf model and the TV commercial promoting the Philadelphia cream cheese.

Their new article brings a new perspective in the ASA’s approach by paying close attention to the complex structure of gender stereotypes and the interaction between their multiple components. More specifically, Dr Antoniou and Dr Akrivos’ research looks at how the ASA has dealt with different forms of gender stereotyping, including sexualisation and objectification; body image; gender roles, behaviours and characteristics; and the ridiculing of those who do not conform to gender norms.

The authors argue that, although the ASA’s new rule and guidelines constitute a step in the right direction, they represent a missed opportunity to take bolder action against ads that objectify or inappropriately sexualise individuals. Dr Antoniou and Dr Akrivos stated: “the new ASA guiding principles need to be revisited in order to go beyond the traditional male/female binary”. They recommend that the new guidance on gender representation in marketing communications needs to reflect the multi-faceted nature and fluidity of modern gender identities. “We propose the introduction of a new concept requiring advertisers to give ‘due weight and consideration’ to the diversity of modern masculinities and femininities”.

The University of Essex’s press release on the study can be found here. The research also featured in an article on the global marketing magazine Campaign and a piece on the LGBTQ magazine GScene.

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