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Banning ads is downright dystopian

Bill Wirtz
September 4, 2019

The UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is enforcing new rules regarding gender stereotypes. Billy Wirtz provides us with his verdict.

A couple camping on a dangerous mountainside. An astronaut eating an apple in space. A disabled athlete completing the long-jump. A car driving past a woman sitting on a bench with a pram next to her. None of this sounds disturbing, and why would it? It's an ad for Volkswagen's new electric car. However, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) decided to censor the advertisement for "harmful gender stereotypes", saying that a woman with a pram perpetuates the idea that only women should raise children.

Another ad for the Philadelphia (cream cheese product) was censored for the same reason. It depicted two fathers forgetting about one of their children for a minute while eating the product. One dad says "don't tell mom". The ASA's reasoning is that the video reinforces the idea that men aren't good caretakers of young children.

These are the first two decisions since the ASA adopted the new policy in June. In a report on "gender stereotypes in advertising", the organisation identifies six characteristics of stereotypes it will seek to censor:

  • Gender roles (as they are defined traditionally), 
  • Gender attributes, 
  • Mocking people for not conforming to stereotypes, 
  • Sexualisation, 
  • Objectification
  • Body image. 

The report finds: "Overall, young children appear to be in particular need of protection from harmful stereotypes as they are more likely to internalise the messages they see."

The structure of these new rules could easily go after any ads for underwear or swimwear (sexualisation, objectification, body image), football equipment if used by men (gender attributes), or razors for legs if used by women (gender attributes). 

All in all, an ad that has people in them will eventually be called out for stereotyping, leaving little leeway for producing advertising. The ASA is politicising consumer behaviour by censoring that which can be shown.

One thing always used to be true: no matter what our political beliefs are, we can enjoy the same food and watch the same TV shows. Now, even advertising is falling victim to the politicisation of everything, dragging consumers into two camps. Consumer choice suffers from that.

Now, why bother? The ASA is not a government body, doesn't enforce government regulation, and is industry-funded. What's so bad about self-regulation?

Self-regulation isn't inherently wrong. There are multiple examples of productive self-regulation, for instance, warning labels on alcoholic beverages, telling pregnant women not to consume alcohol. 

The pretence that the ASA is just scolding advertisers for bad behaviour wouldn't be accurate, because it holds considerably more power. UK broadcasters who are licensed by Ofcom are required to follow ASA rulings and the UK Code of Broadcast Advertising as part of their licence conditions. Ofcom, the Office of Communications, is the UK government-approved regulatory and competition authority for broadcasting, and can impose fines and even withdraw their licence to broadcast.

The ASA can also, through the CAP (Committee of Advertising Practice) revoke, withdraw or temporarily withhold recognition and trading privileges. It gives us an example on its website:

"For example, the Royal Mail can withdraw its bulk mail discount, which can make running direct marketing campaigns prohibitively expensive."

The ASA also sponsors online search results to come with a disclaimer. For instance, if you research a company or a product that the ASA deems in conflict with its code of conduct, a Google box pops up, telling you that it is acting unethically.

In 2018, the ASA resolved 33,727 complaints relating to more than 25,000 ads. In addition, it settled 27,014 cases on their own initiative. As a result, 10,850 ads were either changed or removed (an increase of 53% over the previous year). The Guardian framed the incident with Philadelphia as saying that "complaints from the public" sparked the decision. That seemingly insofar a handful of outraged Twitter commentators count as "the public".

Consumers have a right to be informed about products, and companies have a right to decide for themselves how they want to market the products. It is entirely right and reasonable to boycott a product if you do not like its presentation. In a free society, calling for boycotts and organising them is how we can express discontent.

However, asking an authority that derives power from government bodies to outright censor content that most consumers wouldn't see as problematic in the least, is downright dystopian. We should not politicise ads, and let institutions dictate the realm of acceptable thought and expression.

Not to be misunderstood — self-regulation is a useful and often necessary tool. However, the ASA has massively overstepped and needs to come back to reason or face being reduced to insignificance.

Bill Wirtz is a policy analyst for the Consumer Choice Center. He has written for Newsweek, the Washington Examiner, City AM, RealClear, The Daily Caller and CapX.
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