Last week, for International Women’s Day 2023, CAP produced guidance on embracing equality in advertising, which follows the more detailed CAP guidance on avoiding harmful gender stereotypes which took effect in 2019.

Advertising plays a key role in the perception of women. Whilst some brands are producing thought provoking ads which challenge gender stereotypes (for example, Ford showed the important role that women play in the auto industry in their "The Ford Explorer Men's Only Edition" ad), others are still a long way off. 

Steer clear of stereotypes 

Ads which depict stereotypical roles are likely to be problematic. For example, the ASA upheld a complaint against People Per Hour Ltd for an ad which featured the phrase “You do the girl boss thing. We’ll do the SEO thing”, for implying that women are not good at technology.  They considered the term “girl” was patronising, and the reference to the term was removed by People Per Hour. Despite this, the search #girlboss on Instagram pulls up over 26,000,000 posts. Even though the phrase is popular on social media, brands should still be wary using it for fear of #girlbossing too close to the regulator.

Object to objectification 

Another revolutionary insight from the guidance is that ads should not use women’s bodies in a sexual way to promote products to which they are no way related. The ASA upheld a complaint against JMAC Excavators  for releasing an ad for excavators which featured women wearing hardhats and bikinis. The ad very obviously presented women as sexual objects -  the ASA determined it likely to cause serious offence and JMAC was told to remove the ad. Earlier in 2022, a complaint was upheld against PrettyLittleThing where a model’s bare torso was used to advertise a pair of jeans. The ASA deemed the ad was “using her physical features to draw attention to the jeans in a way that was not pertinent to the product”. 

Sexism is no laughing matter 

It is also clear that the fact an ad is intended to be humorous won’t stop a complaint being upheld. The ASA upheld a complaint against Great Grass MCR  for an ad for artificial grass which featured a women in underwear lying on the grass with the slogan “Get laid by the best” (combined with the heading “ARTIFICIAL GRARSE EXPERTS”). The ASA considered that the ad was objectifying, so unfortunately for Great Grass, the joke fell flat.

Virtually no exceptions 

Even in a virtual realm, the use of animated imagery will not get you off the hook for causing offence. The ASA found that in a paid for game advertising for a mobile app, the appearance of females and the scenarios depicted them as sexual objects, stripped of any agency or personality. The complaint that the depiction of women was sexist was upheld.

Whilst this guidance covers marketing portraying women, it falls silent on the marketing to women. In its submission to the Women and Equalities Committee's inquiry on body image, the ASA declares it has the tools to “make important interventions to guard against negative impact on body image” They have cracked down on misleading health claims in diet supplements and weight loss gummies  - and for trivialising plastic surgery, but does this go far enough? Are further restrictions on the cards, given that these are the kind of ads contribute to the societal pressure on women to look a certain way? It’s food (or not) for thought.