Advertising is in the air (image by the author for Hyperallergic)

This week, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in Great Britain released a report on gender stereotypes in ads titled “Depictions, Perceptions, and Harms.” As reported by the New York Times, the agency, which regulates advertising, found that stereotypes could “restrict the choices, aspirations and opportunities” of viewers — with particular concern regarding teenagers and young girls, as they develop their understanding of the world and their place in it. The report calls for the creation of new standards and practices to amend these biased and biasing advertisements. For the purpose of the report, gender stereotypes are said to “relate to body image, objectification, sexualisation, gender characteristics and roles, and mocking people for not conforming to gender stereotypes.”

Oh snap, it’s almost like someone noticed how the omnipresent, self-interested advertising industry has an impact on how people view themselves and shapes their aspirations!

“Gender stereotypes have the potential to cause harm by inviting assumptions about adults and children that might negatively restrict how they see themselves and how others see them,” says the report, under “Key Findings” that should be astonishing to approximately no one. “These assumptions can lead to unequal gender outcomes in public and private aspects of people’s lives; outcomes, which are increasingly acknowledged to be detrimental to individuals, the economy and society in general.”

Game of War advertisement, which came under the scrutiny of the Advertising Standards Authority in Britain (screenshot via YouTube)

As of 2016, the UK was estimated to be the world’s fourth-largest advertising market, with ad spending somewhere in the neighborhood of $26.1 billion dollars. The new regulations would target ads that depict overtly sexist distribution of labor — such as supermarket chain Asda’s widely criticized, “Behind every great Christmas there’s mum, and behind every mum there’s Asda” campaign — as well as those that are thought to reinforce dangerously unattainable beauty standards. The next steps, on the part of the ASA, which will be working in conjunction with the Committees for Advertising Practice, are to define the said new standards for ads featuring stereotypical gender roles. (The ASA already bans ads that “objectify or inappropriately sexualise women and girls, and ads that suggest it is acceptable for young women to be unhealthily thin.”)

Regulations of this nature are long overdue, as a mountain of anecdotal and scientific research suggests that the images promulgated by media affect society. In the name of free speech and the free market, we allow advertisers to set standards of behavior that are willfully destructive to the general well being. I can’t speak to UK advertising, but I can speak to the US market, which is the largest in the world, having spent roughly $190.84 billion in advertising last year, and is on track to hit $200 billion this year. I can speak to ads in this country not only because I am constantly subjected to them as a participating member of society, but because I worked in advertising for several unhappy years of my life. I would often contemplate — as I sat at my desk in the hip, open-floor plan creative department of a New York City advertising agency — why I was receiving a salary that was four times the amount I previously made doing difficult creative and manual labor.

The answer is, of course, that advertising makes so much money because advertising works. It doesn’t matter how smart or vigilant you are — except inasmuch as you are vigilant about controlling your exposure to advertising — repeated often enough, any message will likely take hold. That’s why it’s particularly disturbing when a report like this one reveals that a great deal of advertising contains retrograde and stereotypical messages about who people, especially women, are, and what they can be.

Self-portrait of the author as a corporate zombie (image by the author for Hyperallergic)

Even measures like the ASA’s will only address the most staggeringly overt forms of messaging. Limiting the content of a “beach body ready” commercial for a weight loss supplement is low-hanging fruit, when compared with the more subtle reality that every single woman who appears in the media is wearing make-up, fundamentally warping the general understanding of what a woman looks like. If you think that doesn’t matter, check out this study that shows that women who wear make-up earn more and are promoted more often than women who don’t. Consider the last time you saw a media image of a woman with unshaved legs, despite the fact that (spoiler alert) a statistically significant number of women grow hair on their legs.

Advertising works, and we cannot rely on regulators to protect us from it, but it’s at least encouraging that there are some who care to do so.

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....