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On 14 December BBC News wrote about the UK’s advertising watchdog banning “gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.” This, because the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) hold that “harmful stereotypes in adverts ‘contribute to how people see themselves and their role in society’, and can hold some people back.

The rule will come into effect on 14 June 2019, and is the result of a review held by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which according to CAP found:

“(…) evidence suggesting that harmful stereotypes can restrict the choices, aspirations and opportunities of children, young people and adults and these stereotypes can be reinforced by some advertising, which plays a part in unequal gender outcomes.”

CAP helpfully supplies a guideline (PDF) for advertisers, explaining the (long) list of things no longer allowed, as well as a (much shorter) list of things it’s not supposed to stop, or aren’t banned yet, at any rate.

Shahriar Coupal, Director of the Committees of Advertising Practice, defends the new policy by claiming, rather puzzling, but no doubt politically correct, that:

“Harmful gender stereotypes have no place in UK advertisements. Nearly all advertisers know this, but for those that don’t, our new rule calls time on stereotypes that hold back people and society.”

Her colleague, gender stereotyping project lead with CPA, Ella Smillie explained the reasoning further:

“The evidence we published last year showed that harmful gender stereotypes in ads contribute to how people see themselves and their role in society. They can hold some people back from fulfilling their potential, or from aspiring to certain jobs and industries, bringing costs for individuals and the economy. We’ve spent time consulting on new standards to make sure they target specifically those images and portrayals we found cause harm.”

Both the review and the press release seem to suggest, however, that the ‘evidence’ is not that strong. The quote above, which has evidence “suggesting” specific “harmful stereotypes can restrict (…)” only has advertising possibly “reinforce” those stereotypes. Advertising does not cause them, and at the most plays a role in “unequal gender outcomes“. This is confirmed by the review which states:

“Given their purpose, to convey characters and characterisations that are immediately familiar to the audience, stereotypical representations in advertising are oversimplified.”

From the review and press release one can conclude that advertisement plays but a very minor role, playing on existing stereotypes. Banning stereotypes in advertisements can logically only have a negligible result on the role stereotypes play in daily life. Again, the review confirms this:

“There is no academic consensus regarding the origin of gender differences, and these are likely to be a combination of innate differences and those constructed by culture. The literature is not conclusive on the role advertising plays in constructing or reinforcing gender stereotypes and gender stereotypical behaviour, and advertising appears to be one of many influences, which may include other societal factors, psychological factors and biology. However, the media does appear to have a role in encouraging conformity to these.”

None of this really seems to matter though. CPA and ASA articulate clearly that there in this for the “equality of outcome“. Never mind the fact that the most egalitarian countries in the world, Scandinavia, are actually witnessing a divergence, not a convergenceof male and female interests and occupations.