14 August 2019

The ASA has no business policing gender stereotypes


The news that the Advertising Standards Authority has banned adverts for Philadelphia cheese and Volkswagen eGolf cars looks like a classic silly season story, a filler for phone-in radio. But I think it’s worrying.

The advertisers are accused of “perpetuating harmful stereotypes”. In the first case this was by portraying men as “unable to care for children as well as women” because they momentarily forgot to pay attention to a baby on a restaurant conveyor belt. In the Volkswagen ad examples of silly male derring-do were offset by a woman sitting calmly with a pram.

Both the advertisers claim that their adverts were ironic or humorous in intention and that the ASA should not have upheld a small number of complaints from the public.

How did we get to the position where the ASA can ban adverts on such spurious grounds, causing financial damage to companies and undermining the advertising sector, hitherto one of the UK’s success stories?

Some background is needed. The ASA, despite its imposing title, is not an ‘authority’ in the statutory sense. It was set up in 1961 as an industry-financed body in response to concerns about the ‘hidden persuaders’, as American sociologist Vance Packard described them, who allegedly manipulated people to buy products which they didn’t need and which sometimes failed to live up to the claims made on the can. The original brief was to try to ensure that adverts were ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’. This is fairly unexceptionable, although perhaps truth is not always self-evident or uncontested, as Brexit keeps reminding us.

Whether this form of self-regulation is necessary, though, is a moot point. It could be argued that dishonest advertising amounts to fraud, and other more egregious types of misleading advertisement could be prosecuted under consumer protection legislation without the need for self-regulation.

If a complaint is upheld, the ASA can require an ad campaign to be amended or withdrawn. It can require future campaigns to be pre-vetted. But these powers are by consent: there is no legal basis for this stuff. If an advertiser refused to play ball, there’s not much the ASA could do except, in the case of genuinely misleading advertising, refer them to the Competition and Markets Authority. But of course companies worried about reputational damage usually acquiesce and withdraw the relevant campaign.

In the past the ASA’s interventions have usually not been too controversial. But two years ago it published Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: A report on gender stereotypes in advertising, which called for “a tougher line” on ads which could be held to feature “stereotypical gender roles and characteristics”. Despite reservations expressed by many at the time, the report’s recommendations were accepted and came into force this June.

The new rules take the ASA way beyond its historic remit and deep into the field of social engineering. They do so on weak grounds and the ASA has consistently downplayed the restrictions on freedom of speech which this policy entails.

The 2017 report argued that gender stereotypes have the potential to cause “mental, physical or social harm”. It was unsurprisingly short of evidence for these effects. Scraping the empirical barrel, it referenced high male suicide rates, which apparently occur because men are upset at being unable to live up to cultural expectations of masculinity. As an economist I don’t know a great deal about that, but I do contest another claim made in the report that there is a loss to the economy of £150 billion because stereotypes help maintain the gender pay gap and therefore lead to slower economic growth. Try testing that one.

The report also claimed that stereotypes can be offensive to large numbers of people, and the authors thought this particularly important. Those arguing for freedom of speech were summarily dismissed: “free speech and liberty to offend does not correspond with a right to cause harm” – something straight out of the Beijing playbook. As for the view that the use of stereotypes – like those in the Philadelphia and Volkswagen adverts – is often meant to be ironic and humorous, the report sternly argued that “research” suggests that exposure to sexist humour “is linked to increased prejudice and sexist views”.

Indeed, frequent references to ‘research’ are made in the document. This turns out more often than not, however, to be qualitative research, usually organised from a critical perspective drawing on media theory. Often the research referenced was produced or pushed by pressure groups such as Stonewall and the Fawcett Society with agendas of their own.

The advertising profession has a bad reputation, but it’s not all Mad Men determined to bamboozle the public and keep women in the kitchen. Advertising has a vital function in disseminating information and awareness, but also a perhaps less vital function in these intellectually straitened times of just amusing us. There is no overwhelming reason, whatever the Titania McGraths may say, that we need to suppress ironic humour. And the danger is that this sort of non-statutory censorship – for that’s what it is – will spread into other areas such as political advertising or what you can say about environmental issues.

The new government has shown some encouraging signs of wanting to turn back the ever-growing reach of government regulation. But we ought to look more critically at self-regulation too, as in this climate of Opinion Emergency it is very difficult for individual businesses to go against the censures of the institutionally Woke, even if the statutory powers of bodies like ASA are in reality non-existent.

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Professor Len Shackleton is the IEA's editorial and research fellow