The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has this month banned two ads according to gender stereotyping rules introduced last year. The ads have been banned by the ASA following complaints that they perpetuate gender stereotypes.

An outdoor ad for People Per Hour, a freelancer finding service, was criticised for demeaning women with the copy “You do the girl boss thing, we’ll do the SEO thing”. Meanwhile a TV ad for computer firm PC Specialist featuring solely men was banned for perpetuating stereotypes that only men are interested in technology.

People Per Hour later apologised, swiftly removing the word “girl” from their ad, while PC Specialist countered that their ad was reflecting their 87.5% male customer base, albeit to no avail.

These advertisers join Volkswagen and Philadelphia as those that have fallen foul of the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) code that came into force on 14th June 2019. The code states that ads “must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence”.

There is no doubt that the copy displayed in these ads feels archaic and lazy, and for examples such as this the rulings are clear cut.

However, the principle of banning ads for how they represent people comes with much debate – some claim regulation has gone too far, while others warn that it fails to account for the humour or nuance that often makes advertising feel so relevant.

The real problem is that regulation comes so late in the creative process; it is too late to ban an advert once live. Instead, agencies and advertisers should be eradicating gender stereotypes and unconscious bias earlier in the process.

Advertisers like Diageo are setting an example to address the challenge throughout the business. In 2019 they introduced a framework to avoid unconscious bias around gender. In the US, the Association of National Advertisers (ANA) introduced a new Gender Equality Measure (GEM) providing a measurement similar to the film industry’s “Bechdel test” to identify unconscious bias in creative testing and advertising upfront, with a clear link to effectiveness.

Beyond the immediate implications for creative agencies this debate raises a wider challenge – how do we move beyond stereotypes to represent society for the masses, at the same time acknowledging the individual?

For media agencies, this is increasingly pertinent. In a world where we collect and analyse more signals of audience behaviours than ever before, our ability to understand and group audiences is challenged.

All too often we seek to define our audience by simplified pen portraits. While these are mere snapshots designed to bring data to life in more emotive and compelling ways, they often ignore the nuances that can really help to connect brands to their audience. Instead we should be looking for what unites audiences as well as what divides them.

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