Is it sexist for an ad to feature only one gender?

PC Specialist's all-male spot was banned by ASA.

PC Specialist: ad starred three men
PC Specialist: ad starred three men

A TV spot from PC Specialist last week became part of a second wave of ads to fall foul of the Advertising Standards Authority’s gender-stereotype rules. The spot, which aired in September 2019, featured three men using computers, as well as a male voiceover stating: "For the players, the gamers, the ‘I’ll sleep laters’, the creators, the editors, the music makers. The techies, the coders, the illustrators." No women were shown or referred to.

In its defence, PC Specialist argued that 87.5% of its customer base is male, explaining that its product, branding and services had all been developed for its target audience. The company said there was no comparison between men and women in the ad and it did not suggest women were not interested in computers.

However, the ASA banned the film for perpetuating harmful gender tropes by implying that only men were interested in technology, with men in stereotypically male roles. PC Specialist said that since pulling the ad it has carried out training internally.

Mondelez International and Volkswagen were the first companies to fall foul of the rules, introduced last summer. However, ISBA and the IPA expressed "confusion" and "concern" over the decision to ban those ads, questioning how they could cause harm, serious or widespread offence. The ASA defended its position, saying that gender stereotyping, taken cumulatively and over time, can affect people’s choices, aspirations and opportunities.

So what really constitutes gender stereotyping in adland? The derogatory representation of one gender in favour of another? The over-representation of one gender? Is gender-targeting the same as sexism?

Senior figures answered Campaign’s question: is it sexist for an ad to feature only one gender? 

Anna Vogt

Chief strategy officer, TBWA\London

It’s sexist if you assign gender to usage behaviour. Even if data suggests it. It seems obvious now that men also do the washing up or change baby’s nappies. But it took bravery to change that casting call. What about products that are, on the face of it, so obviously binary? I use Gillette Mach3 because I think it works better than Venus. I’ve also created a campaign for bras that show men wearing them. Female-hygiene products seem to be the last frontier; well, male transgender model Kenny Ethan Jones fronted a period campaign in 2018. Our industry is at its best when it doesn’t simply reflect what is, but what could be. #Seeittobeit

Xavier Rees

Chief executive, Havas London and Havas Helia

There are nuances to each brief and it’s too broad a stroke to condemn every same-gender ad as unequivocally sexist. Look at "This girl can" or Durex’s "Ladies let’s lube". They’re all about empowerment and all-female casts play an important role in that. That said, you better have a damn good reason for doing it. Advertising must reflect society as it is, not as it is according to some lazy, outdated trope. And how many parts of society are exclusively the domain of just one gender? More to the point, how many brands aim to alienate half their potential customer base?

In 2020, women drink beer and go to the football, and men are stay-at-home dads who use cosmetics. Ignore these people at your peril, because there’ll be a smarter, more culturally savvy brand who won’t. 

Jo Arden

Chief strategy officer, MullenLowe London

In the week that the good guy of morning TV Philip Schofield had to have white privilege explained, it seems there are wider issues with "getting it" when it comes to prejudice and offence. PeoplePerHour have acknowledged their ad might be "sexist and demeaning" (well done; yes, it is) following the complaints, but it’s getting old that this stuff isn’t picked up before it gets out. PC Specialist at least stick to their manly guns by not seeing the problem in an ad featuring only men enjoying their products. "Most of our customers are men" – hmmmm, I’ve got a hunch how you could double that market, lads. The ASA rules are not "political correctness gone mad"; they amount to instructions on how not to be tediously offensive. Really, it’s weird that we need help with that at this stage.

Fernando Desouches

Managing director, New Macho, BBD Perfect Storm 

Sexism in advertising is less a matter of the sex of the cast as it is the overall message the piece is conveying. For example, I wouldn’t find Sport England’s "This girl can" or Nike’s "Dream crazier" sexist because they solely feature women. Across the entire spectrum of issues relating to equality, diversity and inclusion, I believe we should be focusing on appropriate representation. The world is a diverse place and representing it in every aspect, without making an overt statement about it, has proven to be the right way to build brand engagement and, of course, avoid a backlash.

Ali Hanan

Chief executive and founder, Creative Equals

At Creative Equals, we know mixed-teams produce the most effective results. The world is 50/50 and so, for us, that's representation. Of course, the casting of the ad depends on the context or the product. For example, Thinx is period-proof underwear aimed at women. So, in these cases, an all-female cast fits the product (why not show a man putting Thinx underwear in the wash?). What is more important is representing intersectionality within gender and filtering out sexist tropes. We come in all ethnicities, sizes, ages, disabilities, sexual orientations and more. We also need to stop thinking of gender and "sex" in such a binary way. Lib Dem politican Layla Moran has just "come out" as pan-gender, while musician Sam Smith identifies as non-binary. Sexisim and notions of "sex" are being questioned, upturned and challenged by the Generation Alpha. It's time advertising did this too. 

Richard Dunn

UK chairman and chief strategy officer, Wunderman Thompson UK

It’s not the casting in one gender that’s the problem per se (or we’d really struggle flogging beard oil). It’s the stereotyping. The images we help our clients project matter. According to our recent Women’s Index study, carried out by our Female Tribes unit, 58% of women say that role models in TV or film have inspired them to either be more assertive or ambitious. So negative stereotypes and cliché not only work against our audiences, they fall short of inspiring people in a memorable, distinctive way.

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