Moving On From Negative Advertising

by Rosemary Proctor Inspiring Interns

It’s been a few weeks since the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) published Depictions, Perceptions and Harm, its report on gender stereotyping in broadcast and non-broadcast (including online) advertising.

The report makes the case for stronger regulation of harmful gender stereotypes in adverts – think depictions of women as solely responsible for cleaning up after their family, or men bamboozled by simple housework.

Objection to such tropes is nothing new – their presence in adverts has attracted plenty of criticism in the past. Still, it seems that change is brewing: in response to the report, the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) are developing new standards on harmful gender stereotypes, scheduled to come into effect in 2018.

Mind The Gap

The time is ripe for stricter regulations, with social media exploding every few months over yet another off-colour or tone-deaf ad. Gone are the days in which consumers’ concerns about an advert could be contained. Now, they have various online platforms to communicate their outrage, and in the digital age, outrage spreads like wildfire.

Remember the furore over the Gap Kids ad? In the summer of 2016, people began sharing problematic images included in an email from the retailer: a picture of a young boy captioned “the Little Scholar […] your future starts here”, and a picture of a girl captioned “the Social Butterfly […] the talk of the playground”.

After several global news outlets picked up the story, the ad was withdrawn from circulation (swiftly enough to avoid investigation by the ASA), but the episode left a bad taste in many people’s mouths, and it’s fair to say that the Gap Kids’ brand was not left unscathed. Once again, the lid had been lifted on a growing unwillingness among consumers to tolerate tired, potentially harmful gender stereotypes in advertising.

Baby, You Can Drive My Car

The CAP is also working to clarify existing standards on ads that objectify or inappropriately sexualize women and girls, and those that imply that it’s socially acceptable for young women to be unhealthily thin.

The ASA has taken action against such adverts in the past. For instance, in 2013, the Authority banned Renault UK from showing a YouTube ad (“Two Unsuspecting Guys Take the Renault Clio for a Test Drive”) containing a scene in which scantily clad female dancers gyrate around a car. According to the ASA ruling, the scene objectified the dancers and was thus “likely to cause serious or widespread offence”, in violation of the CAP Codes.

Interestingly, although the advert had been viewed over 3.5 million times, the ASA received only one complaint about it. This just goes to show that when an ad contains something that a lot of people would probably find offensive, there is always the risk that it will come back to bite the marketer, however quiet Twitter has been.

You Talkin’ To Me? 

The harmful tropes highlighted in Depictions all work in a negative way, inflating the consumer’s self-worth by belittling an ‘other’, or eroding it by encouraging them to compare themselves unfavourably to an impossible standard.

The evidence that these tropes are in fact counterproductive is not just anecdotal. Academics Claudiu V. Dimofte, Ronald C. Goodstein and Anne M. Brumbaugh have found that consumers do not respond in the desired way to adverts that present a particular group as superior to their own (eg professional athlete versus casual runner).

Rather than inspiring the consumer to seek inclusion in the ‘superior’ group, the resultant threat to their self-esteem seems to turn them off the product advertised.

It’s A New Dawn, It’s A New Day

Plenty of marketers are already running successful advertising campaigns that make people feel good without bringing others down. This doesn’t necessarily preclude the use of aspiration as a motivator for the consumer to purchase the product in question.

In their 2015 paper, “A social identity perspective on aspirational advertising: Implicit threats to collective self-esteem and strategies to overcome them”, published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology, Dimofte, Goodstein and Brumbaugh identify two techniques that can be employed in aspirational advertising to alleviate its potential negative social and commercial effects: “facilitated affiliation” and “indirect self-affirmation”.

Facilitated affiliation tells the consumer that the standard presented is obtainable, while indirect self-affirmation raises the consumer’s self-esteem in an unrelated area. So the facilitated affiliation approach to an anti-wrinkle product would be to show how it works, and/or to emphasise ease of use. The indirect self-affirmation approach would encourage the target consumer to see themselves as a compassionate, intelligent and/or fun person – who is maybe in need of something to tighten up their skin. Both approaches work to cancel out any feelings of inadequacy that an aspirational ad might otherwise produce.

Consumers are calling for positive messaging within advertising, and the regulatory authorities are echoing that call. Many marketers have already sat up and listened, and more are recognising that it’s time to move on from marketing that encourages the consumer to see themselves or others as inferior.

The sun may well be setting on negative advertising tropes; savvy marketers are looking on the bright side.


Rosemary Proctor writes for Inspiring Interns, which specialises in sourcing candidates for internships and giving out graduate careers advice.