The Advertising Standards Agency should not engage in social engineering
The report, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: A report on gender stereotypes in advertising, calls for “a tougher line […] on ads that feature stereotypical gender roles and characteristics”. New rules are to be drawn up, taking effect next year. This takes the ASA beyond its existing remit and deep into the field of social engineering. It does so on the basis of weak evidence, it downplays the restrictions on freedom of speech which this policy entails, and it introduces a new element of costly uncertainty for agencies.
Let’s put this in context. The ASA was set up in 1961 as an industry-financed body in response to concerns about the ‘hidden persuaders’ (as a famous book of the period dubbed them) of the advertising industry, allegedly manipulating people to buy products which they didn’t need and which sometimes failed to live up to the claims made for them.
The ASA works together with the Committee of Advertising Practice (which draws up codes of practice on non-broadcasting advertising and direct marketing) and the Broadcasting Committee of Advertising Practice (which, under powers devolved from Ofcom, maintains the UK Code of Broadcasting Advertising). It investigates complaints about advertising that is held to breach the requirement of being ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’. If a complaint is upheld, the ASA can require it to be amended or withdrawn. It can force future campaigns to be pre-vetted. If there are persistent repeat offenders, the ASA can refer them to the Competition and Markets Authority, which can in some cases prosecute.
The ASA and its satellite bodies have historically based their approach on the need for advertising to be ‘legal, decent, honest and truthful’. This is fairly unexceptionable, although truth has been a slippery concept since Pontius Pilate.
It could be argued that some dishonest advertising amounts to fraud, and other more egregious types of misleading advertisement could be prosecuted under consumer protection legislation without the need for a self-regulator. Some areas where the ASA has intervened are questionable – for instance restricting advertising featuring young women who are fashionably, though conceivably unhealthily, thin. Across the Atlantic, the US Constitution’s First Amendment would prevent such interventions. Nevertheless, there is currently no strong opposition to the ASA’s remit.
The new proposal, however, takes us down a more dangerous path. The key justification offered is that “gender stereotypes have the potential to harm by inviting assumptions about adults and children that might negatively restrict how they see themselves and how others see them”. It is asserted that this can be a factor leading to unequal ‘gender outcomes’, which is taken to be an unequivocally Bad Thing.
The report’s author claims that gender stereotypes can lead to “mental, physical or social harm” or can be offensive to large numbers of people. Some of the possible examples of potential harm are, however, tenuous in the extreme: they include high male suicide rates because men are upset by being unable to live up to male stereotypes, and a loss to the economy of £150 billion because stereotypes help maintain the gender pay gap and slow economic growth.
As for potential offence, the report thinks this is particularly important. Those who argue for freedom of speech are summarily dismissed: “free speech and liberty to offend does not correspond with a right to cause harm”. As for the view that the use of stereotypes is often meant to be ironic and humorous – for instance the depiction of men as useless at domestic tasks – the report argues that ‘research’ suggests that exposure to sexist humour “is linked to increased prejudice and sexist views”.
Frequent references are in fact made to ‘research’ in the document. This turns out more often than not to be qualitative research, usually organised from a critical perspective drawing on media theory. There is little that would pass muster amongst even sympathetic economists. Often this research is produced or pushed by pressure groups such as Stonewall and the Fawcett Society which have agendas of their own.
The report as a whole raises some interesting questions and should not be dismissed outright. But what concerns me is that a body like the ASA has the power, without Parliamentary scrutiny, to impose restrictions on what can or cannot be published. It adopts a cavalier approach to creativity and freedom of expression. It is likely to impose substantial costs on the advertising industry which will have to try to anticipate what complaints may be made under new rules – another own goal as we once more penalise a successful British industry.
Moreover, once this principle is embedded, we can expect further incursions into interest group politics. I don’t think we should be going down this route at all, but if we are to have this sort of intervention it should be debated in Parliament, not decided by a cabal of the politically correct.