What American Feminists Could Learn from the UK’s Misguided Effort to Stop ‘Gender Stereotyping’ in Advertising

Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini once said, “Censorship is advertising paid by the government.” In an ironic twist, one government has now taken to censoring—you guessed it—actual advertising. I’m not talking about requiring ads to meet basic standards for decency by not showing lewd images or crude language, but demanding that they conform to current sensibilities about women and gender. That’s right. The government of Britain, in its eternal wisdom, has decided that it had the time to tackle gender stereotypes, and has decreed that such stereotypes will longer be allowed in advertising.

The Advertising Standards Association (ASA) and its sister group, Committees for Advertising Practice (CAP), are now going to be keeping a close eye on the commercials airing on TV in the UK to make sure that ads that can cause “real public harm” aren’t seen. The ASA studied the “issue” in great detail and issued a report, “Depictions, Perceptions and Harm“, that argued:

It would be inappropriate and unrealistic to prevent ads from, for instance, depicting a woman cleaning, but new standards on gender stereotypes might elaborate on the types of treatments that might be problematic—for example: An ad which depicts family members creating mess while a woman has sole responsibility for cleaning it up. An ad that suggests an activity is inappropriate for a girl because it is stereotypically associated with boys or vice versa. An ad that features a man trying and failing to undertake simple parental or household tasks.

While I think we can all agree that it would be foolish for a company to make these ads (and I will stipulate that I have seen quite a bit of at least the first and last of these on American television), I would hope that we can also all agree that it is not the place of the government to stop a marketing team from making fools of themselves or their product.

Then again, it will be instructive to see which ads they find offensive. According to the New York Times, they include this ad for baby formula, in which a baby girl grows up to be a ballerina, but a baby boy grows up to be a mathematician (frankly, I’m amazed they aren’t equally upset that they’ve gendered the babies at all. Who do they think they are, Beyoncé?); one for a weight-loss drink that asks, “Are you beach body ready?” (body shaming is a no-no); and this one for a video game, in which Kate Upton leads an army, but looks sexy while doing it. I’m still unclear on what the problem is with this last one, but evidently it objectifies women, even though telling Kate Upton to cover up would also seem to be an example of the kind of body-shaming that government censors also reject. Social justice is so tricky, isn’t it?

American feminists like Jezebel‘s Megan Reynolds have been quick to celebrate the UK’s effort at censorship since it comports with an American feminist agenda that embraces speech codes and safe spaces. “This kind of self-awareness is admirable,” she wrote, “but will likely never, ever, in a billion years, happen in the United States!” Reynolds complained that the move was “great news for the UK and less so for us, stuck dealing with crap like this.” But we’re not “stuck dealing” with this; we are lucky to live in a country with a First Amendment, not to mention a great deal of freedom to vote with our wallets by refusing to purchase products from companies that promote messages with which we disagree.

The UK does not have the broad free speech protections we enjoy in the U.S., but they do have a free market economy. Instead of censoring advertisements, a more reasonable approach might have been to let UK companies produce whatever advertisements they’d like to (again, within a reasonable framework of appropriateness for the airwaves). If people find the ads offensive, they will make it known both on social media and by exercising their purchasing power and refusing to buy that company’s products. Businesses can then course-correct and choose to create ads that don’t offend (although in an age as hypersensitive as ours, good luck creating something that no one deems offensive). The bottom line is this: It shouldn’t be up to the government to make that call. And we shouldn’t assume that women are so easily offended that they need a government to censor what they see and hear.

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  • Mack

    Well said.

  • SamHamilton

    Are the Advertising Standards Association (ASA) and the Committees for Advertising Practice (CAP) government agencies?

    • silverpie

      They are what’s technically called a self-regulatory organization. Operated by the industry, but with government power at a backup level. An example here is FINRA for the securities business. And it’s actually the Advertising Standards Authority. Website at http://www.asa.org.uk

      • SamHamilton

        Thanks.