Economy & Business

No One Needs the Government to Protect Them from Stereotypical Ads

People pass in front of a Volkswagen logo ahead of the Shanghai Auto Show in Shanghai, China April 15, 2019. (Aly Song/Reuters)
Consumers can solve this problem without the state getting involved.

Britain has banned two television ads under new rules that ban “gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious widespread offense” — and that’s stupid and unneccessary.

One of the ads, from the local Volkswagen branch, showed men “engaged in adventurous activities,” and two women sleeping in a tent and sitting by a baby carriage, according to the regulators. The other ad was a Philadelphia cream-cheese ad that showed two fathers in a restaurant who were apparently “unable to care for children effectively.”

Advertising Standards Authority investigations manager Jessica Tye told the New York Times that both ads could potentially lead to “real-world harms” and even affect children’s career choices.

According to the Times, both companies were “disappointed” in the rulings, and Volkswagen even pushed back — arguing that the ad depicted women “taking part in challenging situations,” including “what is surely life’s greatest and most valuable role — raising another human being.”

The thing is, though, I’m actually not going to take a stance on whether or not the ads depicted gender stereotypes. Why? Well, because I don’t care.

That’s right: Even if that Volkswagen ad had depicted, for example, that woman sitting by the baby carriage saying “I am sitting by this baby carriage because I am a woman and all I am good for is bearing and raising children,” I still would have said that this move by Britain’s government was dumb — because I simply do not think it is the role of the government to protect anyone from “offensive” stereotypes.

For one thing, I sincerely doubt that a portrayal of a woman and a baby, for example, really has the ability to cause any real “harm” whatsoever. In fact, I think you’d really be hard pressed to have any ad that could have that impact, because I actually doubt that people make serious decisions, such as career choices, based on advertisements.

Tye, of course, explains to the Times that it’s less about a single ad creating harm and more about the cumulative impact that many stereotypical ads can have. Personally, I have my doubts that even this is the case, but even if she were right, I’d still argue that there is absolutely no reason for any government to intervene to mitigate this — because, after all, this is something that could be mitigated quite easily without any government intervention at all.

It’s true: There is already a mechanism in the private sector that discourages companies from making “offensive” ads — it’s called public opinion. If someone finds an ad to be stereotypical or offensive, then that person can simply speak out against it. If an ad is truly “offensive” or harmful, then the company who created it can expect to face consequences apart from the government, such as widespread public backlash and even people choosing to take their money elsewhere.

When I think about the ideal role of a government, I think of one that minimizes involvement and maximizes freedom. Yes, there are things that citizens require government protection from, but anything that its people are completely capable of easily protecting themselves from should never be on that list. If I were a citizen of Britain, I would not be relieved to find that my government was protecting me from viewing potential stereotypes, because I would be too busy being upset that the government was using its taxpayer-funded resources on something that I was perfectly capable of handling myself.

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