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VW Golf and Philadelphia adverts banned for promoting ‘harmful’ gender stereotypes

Recent Advertising Standards Authority ruling bans adverts that promote 'attributes or behaviours usually associated with a specific gender'

Katie O'Malley
Tuesday 13 August 2019 17:39 BST
Child Imagines Space Adventure in Cardboard Box
Child Imagines Space Adventure in Cardboard Box (Istock)

Two separate adverts promoting a Volkswagen car and Philadelphia soft cheese have been barred under new rules banning “harmful” gender stereotypes.

According to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), three people complained about stereotyping to watchdogs after viewing an advert for the Volkswagen eGolf electric car and one for the famous soft cheese brand on 14 June – the day the new rules came into force.

The complaints were upheld by the watchdog which found both adverts breached new rules regarding “harm and offence”.

At the beginning of the Volkswagen advert, a man and woman are lying down in a tent affixed to the side of a cliff. The woman is asleep and the man is reading a book.

The following scene shows two male astronauts floating in a spaceship before a male athlete with a prosthetic leg does the long jump. The final scene shows a woman sitting on a bench next to a pram.

The new rules state that "advertisements must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence".

Guidelines further state that gender-stereotypical roles included occupations or positions usually associated with a specific gender, while gender-stereotypical characteristics included "attributes or behaviours usually associated with a specific gender”.

Complainants said that the Volkswagen advert “perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes” by showing men engaged in adventurous activities in contrast to a woman in a “care-giving” role.

Volkswagen bosses claimed the "core message" of the advert was centred on the "ability of the human spirit to adapt to challenges and change". As a result, the car company did not believe that a climber, astronaut, or athlete competing in a Paralympic sport were gender stereotypical roles.

Volkswagen (Istock)

In response to the complaints, a spokesperson from the car firm stated that the characters were "shown performing actions that were not stereotypical to one gender".

They also claimed that the fact the female climber was asleep "could be said to demonstrate not that she was passive, but that she was relaxed and comfortable in a hostile environment".

However, the ASA rejected Volkswagen’s claims and upheld the complaints.

An ASA spokesman said of the advert: "While the majority of the advert was focused on a theme of adapting to difficult circumstances and achievement, the final scene showed a woman sitting on a bench and reading, with a pram by her side.

"We acknowledged that becoming a parent was a life changing experience that required significant adaptation, but taking care of children was a role that was stereotypically associated with women."

They added that by taking into account the overall impression of the advert, they believed that viewers “were likely to focus on the occupations of the characters featured” and “observe a direct contrast between how the male and female characters were depicted”.

As a result, the watchdog told the car film to ensure their advertising “did not present gender stereotypes in a way that was likely to cause harm, including by directly contrasting male and female roles and characteristics in a way that implied they were uniquely associated with one gender”.

Meanwhile, the Philadelphia advert shows two men caring for newborn babies before one of them leaves his on a restaurant conveyor belt.

One viewer complained to the ASA that the clip "perpetuated a harmful stereotype" by suggesting that men were "incapable of caring for children" and "would place them at risk as a result of their incompetence”.

In light of the complaint, Mondelez UK – the makers of Philadelphia – said the advert was intended to show a "humorous" situation in which parents found the cheese so delicious that they got momentarily distracted from looking after their children.

They believed the gender roles suggested in the advert could be reversed and therefore didn’t perpetuate a harmful stereotype. The company also stated that they deliberately chose to feature two fathers to avoid the typical stereotype of two mothers with childcare duties.

However, the complaint was upheld by the ASA with a spokesperson adding that they acknowledged Mondelez UK’s intentions to present a “light-hearted” and “comical” situation.

Man with newborn baby (Istock)

"We considered, however, that the men were portrayed as somewhat hapless and inattentive, which resulted in them being unable to care for the children effectively,” they explained.

The spokesperson said that the watchdog recognised that the depiction of new parents could be seen as a characterisation that they are inexperienced. They added that, regardless of gender, it is often common for parents to jokingly ask their children not to tell the other parent about something that happened.

"However, in combination with the opening scene in which one of the babies was handed over by the mother to the father, and the final scene in which one of the fathers said 'Let's not tell mum', we considered the advert relied on the stereotype that men were unable to care for children as well as women," they concluded.

In summary, the ASA concluded that “the advert perpetuated a harmful stereotype, namely that men were ineffective at childcare, and was in breach of the Code”.

As a result, Mondelez UK has been told to ensure their advertising does not perpetuate harmful gender stereotypes.

Ella Smillie, head of policy and campaigns at the Fawcett Society, said her organisation welcomes the ASA’s rulings.

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“It’s about time advertisers woke up and stopped reinforcing lazy, outmoded gender stereotypes,” Smillie said.

The spokesperson added that children are known to internalise such stereotypes “in a way that that limits their aspirations and potential in life”.

“We have to seize the opportunity to change childhood and change lives.” Smillie stated.

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