We all know that advertising is the work of the devil – creating entirely spurious wants, including in small children – but making it gender neutral doesn’t help. The Advertising Standards Authority is extending its brief to ensure that advertising does not confirm unhelpful sex stereotypes. That is to say, it is going to ban advertisements suggesting that little girls want to be ballerinas (Aptamil) or showing Lynda Bellingham at the stove (Bisto). Guy Parker of the ASA says, ‘advertising standards can play an important role in tackling inequalities and improving outcomes for individuals, the economy and society as a whole’; the ASA will make sure it does by stigmatising the offenders.
But the job of the ASA is not to make the world a better place; its brief is to ban advertisements that are not legal, decent, honest or truthful. If ads are so grotesquely sexist that they annoy everyone, then they are subjected to rightful and unmerciful derision on the part of their target audience, as in the case of the unfortunate Protein World ad which became a sensation for all the wrong reasons. What we don’t need is the ASA to act as censors of unsound thought, especially if the ads in question reflect social reality. Those ones suggesting that women do most of the cleaning and hoovering are, I am sorry to say, effective because that’s how things are for lots of people, if not necessarily in Mr Parker’s place, or mine. I may say that my own home life is such as Mr Parker would approve: I don’t clean but I cook; my husband doesn’t cook, but he cleans. And my daughter doesn’t wear pink and refused ballet lessons from her earliest youth.
What the ASA could usefully do is to ban advertisements aimed at children, who don’t have the reserves of cynicism that protect the rest of us from commercial exploitation. Bombarding them with promotions for toys and food is evil and pernicious and should be stopped. But that might be a taller order than bullying agencies to show men doing the laundry.