With new ASA legislation coming in June around the use of gender stereotypes, Digital Marketer, Liv Ancell takes a look at what it was like to grow up learning about gender through advertising.


One of my favourite anecdotes about gender stereotyping in advertising surprisingly comes from Meghan Markle: when she was just a young girl growing up in California, a P&G advert for dish soap caught her eye. Why? The now infamous advert read simply:

The gloves are coming off. Women are fighting greasy pots and pans with Ivory Clear.

Far from just enraging 11-year old Markle, the messaging clearly resonated with others, albeit in the wrong way: Markle recalls young boys in her class beginning to echo the sentiment, taunting their female peers by saying that “women belong in the kitchen”. In P&G’s case, this was a blatant case of gender stereotyping, enforcing and encouraging a dangerous assumption enforced on women.


Fast forward to 2019...


While the majority of advertising these days may not contain as blatant sexism as in P&G's case, we – and our children – still face the threat of being served equally toxic gender stereotypes through casting decisions and narrative.

What children see shapes their aspirations, beliefs and opinions of the world. Gender bias is developed at an early age, when children absorb and observe almost everything around them. 

And, many of these resulting gender biases are created by advertising. One of the adverts from my childhood which has remained lodged in my mind ever since is a 2002 Robinson’s Fruit Shoot advert featuring two young women playing tennis and arguing over a controversial line call.

The contents of this advert were somewhat unremarkable, although I suppose looking back, seeing women represented on court may have subconsciously inspired my fervent tennis playing years. Perhaps more pointedly, it demonstrates just how absorbent children’s minds are – how 17 years later, I can still recite the script word-for-word.

Now imagine that same Robinson’s advert had instead featured a pair of young males playing tennis, while the females watched idly from the sidelines, offering them up a Fruit Shoot at half time. Perhaps my impressionable young mind would have taken notice. Would I have believed that young girls couldn’t play tennis as well as boys, and not even tried the sport for myself?


This is where equal advertising comes in.


With media budgets so enormous, and with more available platforms than ever before, advertisers and clients both need to understand the weight of the responsibility which their decisions carry. 

Because they’re not just selling products, pushing brand awareness or changing lifestyles - they’re shaping the minds, the ambitions, and the subconscious gender bias of every generation. In every sector, every advert matters. A man’s hand appearing alongside power tools, a woman doing the school run. These examples may seem innocent, but children - and adults - need to see their genders represented in all roles and situations.

Some brands are taking bold steps in breaking down gender stereotypes (think Gillette’s The Best Men Can Be or Nike’s Dream Crazier) but true equality in advertising can only be achieved when equal gender representation trickles down to the everyday messaging, too.


Will everything change in June?


The ASA will be playing its part in banishing gender stereotypes, as of 14th June 2019 it will be enforcing a new rule which stipulates:

[Advertisements] must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.

While this is a positive step and will likely wipe out any blatantly dangerous or offensive stereotypes in mainstream advertising, it is unlikely to conquer the appearance of gender stereotypes in more subtle forms which can have equally repressive effects in the long-term. It cannot just be left to the big budget brands to be impactful in this area; all brands, regardless of budget, can and should be conscious of the impact they could have. 

Avoidance of gender stereotyping is the collective responsibility of everybody involved in the creative process; from the copywriters, to the art directors, and the casting directors to the marketers. To learn more about gender stereotyping, read the ASA’s website.

Liv Ancell, digital marketer.