In June 2019, after a lot of work and fanfare, the ASA introduced its new gender stereotyping guidelines

Rule 4.14 of the BCAP Code on harm and offence states that “Advertisements must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence”.  Other forms of stereotypes don't get their own specific rule, so gender stereotypes are placed on a particularly high pedestal by the ASA.

The ASA’s first tranche of decisions under this new rule attracted some criticism for being too strict, inconsistent and lacking common sense. The ASA has taken a softer line since then, resolving many matters informally and taking an apparently more lenient approach in its subsequent rulings.

This week, it issued an adjudication about a TV ad for Rightmove. The complainant argued that it depicted women and girls as demanding and annoying and men as not taking responsibility for childcare, challenged whether it perpetuated harmful gender stereotypes.

The ad in question featured a man in his empty living room sitting down to read a truck magazine with four girls playing noisily nearby. The man was then shown with his female partner and four daughters who were putting face paint on him and styling his hair. Then, he was trying to read in the bathroom. A fire alarm went off and a girl holding a mixing bowl opened the door and said “Dad, something really bad has happened!”. The man was then shown sitting in the back garden with his magazine. He looked up to see a dog with a pink bow in its hair whining and holding a lead in its mouth, and there was a sound of thunder and rain.

The ad then depicted the family moving to a larger house. The man was shown going into a shed at the bottom of the garden and sitting down to read his magazine as his lively little girls’ faces appeared at the shed window.

Rightmove argued that the ad has been regularly shown since December 2018 (the complainant saw it in July 2020). It did not cement gender roles but showed the need for parents to need time for themselves. As a family, they had outgrown their house and needed to move to a larger one. Rightmove did not believe that the ad perpetuated or relied upon harmful gender stereotypes. Clearcast’s view was that the ad provided an insight into a family wanting to move home to have more space. They did not consider that the father was shown attempting to avoid childcare and domestic duties.

The ASA did not uphold the complaint. It pointed out that the guidance states that ads may depict people undertaking gender-stereotypical roles, but they should take care to avoid suggesting that stereotypical roles or characteristics were always uniquely associated with one gender. The ASA accepted that the scenario was clearly conveyed in a way that was reliant on gender stereotypes, such as the man cave, the father reading a truck magazine and being “outnumbered” by the females in the house, including the female dog.

However, the key issue is whether such stereotypes are likely to cause cause harm. The ASA noted there was nothing in the ad to suggest that the main character was unable to cope with childcare or that he did not participate in family life. Furthermore, while the little girls were noisy and lively, and the father was called on to help with problems they had caused, the ASA did not consider the ad gave the impression that they were particularly annoying or demanding on the basis of their gender, and a similar treatment could have been achieved with boys being loud or disruptive while taking part in activities stereotypically associated with males.

The ASA considered that the overriding impression of the ad was of a family’s hectic life in a home that they were outgrowing and that the scenes in which the dad was shown relaxing were those exceptional times when he tried to take a few moments for himself, rather than a harmful depiction of a father who avoided childcare and domestic chores or of women and girls proving an annoyance specifically on the basis of their gender. While the presentation of the scenario undeniably drew on gender stereotypes, the ASA rejected the argument that it did so in a way that was likely to cause harm.

The case continues the trend of taking a less strict approach to complaints about gender stereotyping – more is being made of the “harm” element and the fact that the stereotype has to be 'harmful' rather than merely identifiable.   The ASA stated "While the presentation of the scenario undeniably drew on gender stereotypes, we did not consider that it did so in a way that was likely to cause harm."

Which does seem to me to be the right move.

You can view the ad here.