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Oh, no! Social engineering comes to Advert Land


THE advertising watchdog’s ban on ‘harmful gender stereotypes’ comes into force today. According to guidance issued in December by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), such adverts lower viewers’ self-esteem, which limits ‘their aspirations and ability to progress in key aspects of their personal and professional lives’.

What kind of thing does the ASA have in mind? Examples in the guidance include an ad showing ‘a man being adventurous juxtaposed with a woman being delicate or dainty’, and one implying that a person’s ‘physique is a significant reason for them not being successful, for example in their romantic or social lives’.

This does seem to smack of social engineering. After all, men do often like to be adventurous and women often are delicate and dainty. Many men and women find such features appealing in themselves and attractive in one another. It feels a little like trying to ban human nature, to outlaw natural desire.

It also means that advertisers will have to depict other, perhaps less typical and alluring scenarios, say with well-built women impressing dainty men. Each to their own, for sure – but is it reasonable or liberal to ban the one but not the other, because one is deemed to be a ‘stereotype’? What is the difference between a stereotype and what many people happen to do and like? Is romance a stereotype? From the writings of many feminists you would certainly get that impression.

And isn’t it simply a fact that having a good physique can make a significant difference to one’s attractiveness to the opposite sex? To what extent is this banning the representation of truth?

Also banned are ads which belittle a man for ‘displaying emotional vulnerability’, even in jest, since ‘the use of humour or banter is unlikely to mitigate’ the offence caused. This seems unduly humourless. Think of the classic Walkers ad with Gazza crying because Gary Lineker stole his crisps. This seems to be the kind of thing that would be caught by this new PC ban. Is that really what we want?

The ban also covers ads suggesting women do most of the housework, which denies the experiences of many women. As Mary Wakefield says in the Spectator: ‘It’s irresistibly weird to imagine a Britain in which women slogging through the dishes are forced to watch a TV world in which only happy husbands do the washing up.’

It feels like an attempt to hide the role of housewife, pretend it isn’t there, which hardly seems like progress for women. The suggestion seems to be that being a homemaker limits a woman’s ‘aspirations and ability to progress’. Yet women do often take on a homemaker role, and enjoy it and find it rewarding. Banning depicting it in ads seems false, and demeans the many women for whom this is their chosen occupation.

The motto of the ASA is ‘legal, decent, honest, truthful’, reflecting its statutory duty to ensure advertising is all these things. Why then is it banning advertisers from being truthful in portraying the lives and aspirations of those they are targeting with their promotions?

‘We don’t see ourselves as social engineers,’ says Ella Smillie, project lead on gender stereotyping at the ASA. ‘We’re reflecting the changing standards in society.’ This seems to me disingenuous, or at least naïve. For they are clearly reflecting the changing standards in society in a way that reinforces them to attempt to change the way people think and behave. Which is classic social engineering.

This guidance is poorly conceived. It is vague in what it prohibits, and the connection with the ‘problem’ it is trying to address is at best tenuous (consider that female happiness has been declining since 1975 and the rise of female promiscuity and the have-it-all ideal).

What constitutes a stereotype and how it differs from what people often or typically do or like is very unclear, as is what it is about these things that makes them ‘harmful’. The whole thing seems to be ideologically driven, particularly as there is no ban on inverting stereotypes, which means advertisers can portray what is unusual or bizarre but not what is common or typical. This is not sound, sensible, liberal policy for a free and healthy society.

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Will Jones
Will Jones
Will Jones is editor of the Daily Sceptic.

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