Belfast Telegraph

Fionola Meredith: Banning 'sexist' ads for cars and cream cheese an insult to the intelligence of every woman

Why is the Advertising Standards Authority behaving like some patronising State censor, asks Fionola Meredith

The banned Volkswagen’s television advertisement for its e-Golf electric car
The banned Volkswagen’s television advertisement for its e-Golf electric car
Fionola Meredith

By Fionola Meredith

Images of hapless dads and happy mothers - honestly, could you imagine anything more offensive and harmful to the wellbeing of our society?

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has taken the bizarrely draconian decision to ban two television adverts - one for cars and one for cream cheese - under new rules intended to combat gender stereotyping.

Any ads that are deemed "likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence" will effectively be censored since the ASA has decided that looking at sexist adverts can "limit people's potential", whatever that means.

So what was so awful about these ads that they had to be wiped off our screens before they destroyed the hopes and dreams of a nation?

Ok, I'll tell you, but you must promise not to seek them out online. I can't be held responsible for the potentially devastating consequences.

The ad for Volkswagen's e-Golf electric car showed a bunch of people, mostly men, engaged in various adventurous activities and a woman sitting serenely on a bench alongside a pram as the e-Golf car tootles by. The strapline was "when we learn to adapt we can achieve anything".

Three people - yes, that's right, just three of them - complained. There was no "widespread offence".

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Nonetheless, the ASA's response was to ban the ad because the woman with the pram was depicted in a "stereotypical care-giving role".

And we, the viewing public, can't possibly be permitted to see such a monstrous thing as a woman with a pram.

Forget the inconvenient fact that newborn infants are mostly cared for by their mothers, which is why maternity leave was invented in the first place. Mums and prams are now verboten, or at least can't be depicted in advertisements alongside men pretending to be astronauts.

With me so far?

The other ad was for Philadelphia cream cheese and it showed two new dads, with their infants, in one of those sushi-type restaurants where the food goes round on a conveyor belt. They're so busy chatting that they don't notice when their babies are carried away on the conveyor belt. "Let's not tell mum," says one of them.

A fairly silly, inconsequential way to flog overpriced soft cheese, you might think.

Wrong. You aren't allowed to see the ad because dopey dads are also a toxic category for the ASA, apparently reinforcing the idea that men are ineffective carers of children.

In vain did the manufacturer protest that they used two dads because they didn't want to depict two mums as solely responsible for childcare - or, one assumes, as the kind of ditzy whiffle-heads who would mislay their babies over lunch. But to no avail. Banned.

Look, I'm no supporter of the advertising industry. Ad breaks hurt my brain. I'd be happy never to see another advert again.

But it is absurd for the ASA to act as State censors, preventing us from drawing our own conclusions about what constitutes offence.

The ASA appears to be under the impression that we are all gullible, credulous idiots who have only to see something enacted in order to be convinced we must behave in exactly the same way.

Advertising is the art of manipulation, for sure, playing on our existing fears and desires. But advertisers are not mind-controlling Svengalis, hypnotising us for their own evil ends. They reflect society, they do not create it. We retain the ability to judge, discriminate, and think for ourselves.

And besides, where is the evidence that this supposedly dangerous stuff actually causes "harm"?

I can't imagine any young woman has been deterred from a promising career in the STEM industries because she saw a mother with a pram in a car advert. I don't see a young dad throwing in the house-husbanding towel because of a lame ad for spreadable cheese.

Of course, in the past jaw-droppingly sexist ads really were rife. A vintage Volkswagen advert shows a bashed-up Beetle with one headlight broken. "Women are soft and gentle, but they hit things," says the caption. It reassures cash-strapped husbands that Volkswagens are cheap to fix - "so when your wife goes window-shopping in a Volkswagen, don't worry".

Fortunately, that world of blatant misogyny has long gone. Which is why the ASA has no justification for its clumsy, authoritarian and deeply patronising attempt at social engineering.

Thanks guys, but we do not need to be saved from ourselves. Women should be free to make their own choices about what they consider sexist or not.

To my mind the answer is simple. If you don't like the advert, don't buy the product.

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