ASA cracking down on gender stereotypes in advertisements

Gender is an issue which is increasingly hitting the headlines.  Recent examples include the gender wages gap, Trump calling for an absolute ban on transgender soldiers serving openly in the military and the call for football to adopt a version of the 'Rooney rule' to apply to gender as well as race when recruiting for coaching and senior operational positions. 

The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) is not immune from this hot topic and was receiving increasing pressure to look into the role of gender within ads.  One catalyst was the 2015 'beach body ready' ad which received 380 complaints but which did not fall foul of the current rules. 

The ASA already have certain principles in place but the report was conducted to consider whether the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the ASA are doing enough to address the potential for harm or offence arising from the inclusion of gender stereotypes in ads.  Harmful stereotypes can "restrict the choices, aspirations and opportunities of children, young people and adults".  Following the report they have released some guidance to help ensure ads don't engender criticism from the ASA under their current positions.

The report

The ASA report, titled 'Depictions, Perceptions and Harm' identified six categories of gender stereotyping:

  1. Roles / occupations usually associated with a particular gender;
  2. Characteristics or behaviours associated with a particular gender;
  3. Mocking people for not conforming to stereotype;
  4. Portraying individuals in a highly sexualised manner (sexualisation);
  5. Depicting someone in a way that focusses on their body or body parts (objectification); and
  6. Depicting an unhealthy body image.

The report found that the ASA already ban adverts which objectify or sexualise women but that they need to crack down on ads where harm may be caused through featuring stereotypical gender roles or characteristics e.g. an ad featuring a man trying and failing to undertake simple parental or household tasks.

Following the report the ASA will be strengthening their regulation on the use of gender stereotypes in ads which might be potentially harmful.  New standards will be developed which will also catch ads that mock people for not conforming to gender stereotypes.  CAP will deliver training and advice on the new standards before they come in.

Ads open to criticism

Ads which were found not to fall foul of the rules but which received a number of complaints and which featured sexist stereotypes or mocked people which didn’t follow traditional roles include the following:

Protein World

This ad featured a toned and athletic looking female in swimwear with the caption "Are you beach body ready".  This implied certain body shapes were superior to others and also suggested various health and weight loss claims were associated with the product.  This ad was not banned despite receiving over 300 complaints.


Complaints were made following an ad showing a girl becoming a 'social butterfly' and a boy becoming an academic.


This ad featured one man teasing another, who says he suffered from anxiety, over his masculinity.  The first man stated that the other was not a man because he bought a smaller television and used scented candles.

These ads may not be allowed under the new rules.

How to ensure your ad won't be banned

Whilst we are waiting for the new standards to come in, the ASA have stated that the current positions still stand and are broadly in the right place for body image, sexualisation and objectification.  The ASA and the CAP have released some guidance to ensure ads don't engender criticism under the current positions.

Body Image

The importance here is not the BMI of the model but the presentation of the ad.  The models should not be presented in a way that promotes an unhealthy body image e.g. appearing underweight with bones visible or through the use of clothing, make up and lighting.

Objectification and Sexualisation

People should not be depicted as objects or in a way that causes offence.  There should be no gratuitous nudity or sexualised imagery, particularly where irrelevant to the product.  Models wearing lingerie in a lingerie ad is likely to be acceptable but models wearing lingerie in a food ad is likely to be unacceptable.

Why you should consider how your ads portray gender stereotypes

The Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations (2008) is the basis of protection against unfair or misleading advertising and the ASA is part of the self-regulatory system for the industry.  The ASA cannot impose fines but the lost value from production and media budgets could be significant if your ad is banned.  Ads banned by the ASA also often receive adverse publicity which could damage the reputation of your brand, trading privileges could be withdrawn, you could be excluded from industry awards, CAP may vet all of your future advertisements and in serious cases you could be referred to Trading Standards or Ofcom.  It is therefore prudent to ensure that your ads do not fall foul of the new regulations once they are announced.

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