In the name of protecting women from potentially offensive advertising, the United Kingdom’s Advertising Standards Authority recently announced that it will develop new rules to ban certain types of ads. In particular, the ASA has its sights on ads that contain gender stereotypes, sexually objectify women, or promote unhealthy body images, ads that it claims “restrict the choices, aspirations and opportunities” of the people who view them.
In reality, of course, female consumers do not need paternalistic bureaucrats’ protection from advertising.
Under these new rules, an ad for baby formula that depicts a little girl becoming a ballerina while a little boy becomes a mathematician would not be allowed. Sure, it’s a classic, tired stereotype to assume that woman will be dancers and men will work in STEM. But, banning this type of advertising is an insult to women such as Merritt Moore. Moore is about to graduate with a doctorate in quantum physics from Oxford University. She’s also a talented professional ballerina who’s danced with the English National Ballet, Boston Ballet, and Zurich Ballet. There’s nothing wrong with little girls who want to dance. But there is something wrong with regulators who believe they should decide which sort of female role models children can see on television.
The ASA also believes that it should be able to decide which female body types can be portrayed by advertisers. As an example of the kind of content it finds unacceptable, it points to an ad for Protein World that depicts a woman in a yellow bikini. The ad sparked complaints in 2015, as many people claimed that it “body-shamed” and “oppressed” women. People can and should speak out freely against advertising they dislike, just as they choose whether to purchase products from companies that advertise in ways they deem offensive. But, regulators should not have the power to decide which female bodies are healthy and which promote an unhealthy body image.
Regulations that ban gender stereotypes and models in swimsuits are not only misdirected and patronizing, they ignore the efforts of many businesses to self-regulate. Aerie, a lingerie brand that targets high-school- and college-aged women, launched its #AerieREAL campaign in 2015, pledging not to retouch photos of their models and to showcase a variety of body types. Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign has run for 13 years, putting forth countless ads that changed the conversation about what it means to be beautiful. Aerie’s campaign stimulated a surge of sales, and Dove’s inspired a 60 percent increase in sales over a ten-year period.
These successes were not random. Research by top advertising firm Badger & Winters found that ads that objectified women had a significantly negative effect on brand reputation and consumers’ likelihood of making a purchase. Brands such as Victoria’s Secret will probably continue to showcase atypical-looking supermodels for years to come, but other companies may choose to follow Aerie and Dove with the hope of increasing their sales and bolstering their reputations.
Well-intentioned British bureaucrats can try to rectify gender inequality and body-image problems through rules and regulations, but consumers will always have the most success in convincing businesses to change their advertising. Last year, for example, offensive Sprite ads that featured sexist phrases such as “She’s Seen More Ceilings . . . than Michelangelo” were rightly met with such a fierce consumer backlash that the company was forced to apologize. And a 2012 Reebok ad that encouraged men to “Cheat on Your Girlfriend, Not Your Workout” was removed from circulation after customer complaints.
Sure, some ads will end up being insensitive to women, but it shouldn’t be up to bureaucrats to determine which ones fit the bill. The British government needs to realize that women can stand up for themselves without its help.