Women are tough enough to cope with sexist adverts, whatever the watchdog says
A crackdown by the Advertising Standards Authority on stereotypes is missing the point, says Fionola Meredith
Go Nanette Newman! Now those are words I never thought I'd have occasion to say. But when it comes to the Advertising Standards Authority's crackdown on gender stereotyping I'm with her, hand in soapy hand, every step of the way.
You'll remember Nanette. She was the star of the famous Fairy adverts of the 1980s. She disagrees with the ASA's new rules, which will give the watchdog the power to ban offending adverts from being printed, broadcast or posted online.
Ads showing women confined to domestic roles, or men being thick and incompetent at parenting or DIY, could well be filed under 'bin'.
But wait, isn't this a great initiative? Wouldn't it be a wonderful world if we weren't force-fed these crude stereotypes by mendacious advertisers only interested in commodity and profit? Ella Smillie, the author of the ASA report, says that specific forms of gender stereotypes can even cause harm to adults and children: "Such portrayals can limit how people see themselves, how others see them, and limit the life decisions they make."
Really? So because a 10-year-old girl sees an ad with some rictus-grin woman wiping muck off a bath, that automatically puts paid to her dreams to be a Nobel Prize-winning mathematician? Ah, if only the root causes of inequality were so easily addressed simply by the State-sponsored removal of stupid adverts.
Fortunately we have Nanette, on a time-trip back from the Eighties, to talk a bit of sense.
"Don't they think that audiences are savvy enough to make up their own minds about a TV commercial?" she inquired, adding that women were "a tough breed and not so easily offended that we need the ASA to protect us from a commercial which shows us extolling the virtues of a cleaning product. Women can work out for themselves when they are being patronised".
This is true. But I'd go a step further and say that banning ads deemed harmful to women's self-esteem is actually an anti-feminist move, as well as being highly patronising in itself. It acts against female liberation and strength. Because it's based on the erroneous assumption that us ladies are delicate little kiddywinks who only have to get a glimpse of ads like the infamous Protein World billboard, featuring an unfeasibly honed beach babe, to collapse in a pool of inconsolable tears, devastated that our abs just cannot compete. As Newman says, most women are tougher than that.
Besides, when it comes to gender stereotypes, there's often more than a pinch of truth involved. Take the Asda advert from 2013 that caused such a hoohah, with hundreds of complaints to the ASA. That was the one showing a harried mother desperately trying to get everything ready for Christmas - shopping, writing cards, wrapping presents, cooking and cleaning. "Behind every great Christmas there's mum, and behind every mum there's Asda," ran the slogan. Now, there's an ad that would presumably fall foul of the new rules.
But the fact is that women often - though, of course, not always - do end up doing the vast majority of the festive preparations. That pre-Christmas frenzy is familiar to many of us. And 80% of shoppers at Asda are indeed female.
Is shopping, cooking, cleaning and getting ready for Christmas women's rightful work? Are women the natural denizens of the domestic realm? Of course not. Nobody believes that any more. But ads like this resonate with the experience of millions of people, and the ASA censoring them on our behalf, like a benign Big Brother, would both invalidate that experience and at the same time do nothing to improve gender equality.
Social engineering should not be the job of the advertising standards watchdog. They realise this important fact in Sweden where, unusually among European countries, they have no legislation dealing with gender discrimination in adverts on the grounds that it would curtail freedom of expression.
Advertising is a weird reflection of reality, a way of twisting our fears, fantasies and deepest desires and selling them back to us in the most seductive and provocative way possible.
Some of the images and ideas we are presented with on a daily basis are indeed sexist or offensive, or just plain silly.
But we're not brainless automatons sitting slack-jawed in front of the telly, waiting for instruction by the higher powers of the ad industry.
We are independent individuals who are capable of thinking, judging and acting for ourselves without having everything pre-censored by the ASA.
And if you see an ad that you don't like, there's a simple answer.
Don't buy the product.