The First Ads Banned in the UK For Gender Stereotyping are Shockingly Un-Shocking

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A still from the Philadelphia cream cheese commercial recently banned in the UK. (YouTube)

Two TV commercials that would fly totally under the radar in the U.S. have just been banned in the U.K. for perpetuating gender stereotypes.

In one for Philadelphia cream cheese, two new dads are shown at a sushi-style restaurant, getting distracted by the snacks on offer and almost losing their babies on the food carousel. As they make last minute grabs to retrieve their children, one of them says "Let's not tell mum."

In the other, for Volkswagen electric e-Golf cars, a man is shown zipping up a tent on the side of a cliff while his female companion sleeps, male astronauts are seen functioning in zero gravity, a male athlete with a prosthetic leg performs a high jump, and a woman with a stroller is seen reading on a park bench. The images are accompanied by the tagline: "When we learn to adapt, we can achieve anything."


Thanks to brand new rules, both of these were considered problematic enough for watchdog organization, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), to pull the commercials. The regulations, adopted in June, also encompass standards for online ads, print media and billboards.

Late last year, the ASA's Chief Executive, Guy Parker, told the BBC:

"It’s going to be okay for an ad to show a woman shopping or cleaning. It’s going to be okay to show a man doing a DIY task in the home. What we’re going to be looking at is ads that go beyond that. Ads that paint the picture that it’s a woman’s role to tidy up after her family who’ve trashed the house—that it’s her job in life. We’re worried about that sort of depiction. Similarly ads that mock men for being hopeless at performing straightforward parental or household tasks just because they’re a man.”

Both Volkswagen and Mondelez (the makers of British Philadelphia) have objected to the ASA's decision to ban their ads. Mondelez claims it specifically chose to depict male parents in the Philadelphia commercial because most ads with babies feature women. VW argued that the sleeping woman in the car commercial "could be said to demonstrate not that she was passive, but that she was relaxed and comfortable in a hostile environment," and that everyone else in the ad was "shown performing actions that were not stereotypical to one gender."

The genesis for the new rules came in 2015, with an ad for a company called Protein World that featured a conventionally beautiful model in a yellow bikini, alongside the question "ARE YOU BEACH BODY READY?" It caused uproar across the U.K., with critics vocalizing their disdain on social media, and, via graffiti, on the posters themselves. Over 70,000 people signed a petition to have the ads removed, and women staged protests in London parks and underground stations, in their own bikinis.

In response to the furor, the ASA pulled the ad and launched an investigation.

Interestingly, both of the recently-banned TV commercials were also flagged by members of the British public, albeit in much smaller numbers. The Philadelphia one garnered 128 objections; the VW ad, only three. Five complaints were also reportedly filed for a commercial for Buxton spring water (below), but the ASA concluded that it didn't fall under their guidelines, as it merely showed people excelling at non-gender-specific passions.

Clarifying the goal of the new rules, Parker told the BBC. "Our evidence shows how harmful gender stereotypes in ads can contribute to inequality in society, with costs for all of us," he said. "Put simply, we found that some portrayals in ads can, over time, play a part in limiting people's potential."

The nuances involved with deciding what gets pulled and what doesn't are bound to prompt endless debate in the months to come, but the new advertising standards can't help but utterly transform how products are sold to the British public. According to Adweek's managing editor, that might have an impact on how the U.S. sells things too. "This could have a ripple effect throughout the ad industry," Stephanie Paterik told Good Morning America two years ago, when the new rules were first announced. "While the regulation only applies to the U.K., it is very much a global industry—and advertising creatives are really attuned to what their peers are doing in other countries.”

Rumors that Carl's Jr. will never, ever open a British restaurant now are unconfirmed, but probable.