Harmful Stereotyping in Advertising Must Not Be a “Forever Problem”

Feb 26, 2021, 09:00 AM by La Toya Sutton, Attorney and Kat Dunnigan, Senior Attorney, National Advertising Division

As the annual celebration of Black History Month draws to a close, the focus on Black history raises issues that should remain top of mind.

For those of us who work in truth in advertising at BBB National Programs’ National Advertising Division, we are paying close attention to the issues of diversity and stereotyping, as presented in various forms of advertising. As the UK Advertising Standards Authority chief executive Guy Parker told the BBC, lack of diversity and use of harmful stereotypes may “restrict the choices, aspirations, and opportunities of children, young people, and adults and these stereotypes can be reinforced by some advertising… put simply, we found that some portrayals in ads, over time, play a part in limiting people’s potential.”

A necessary first step to increasing positive representation in advertising is raising awareness. The UNstereotype Alliance – a partnership convened by UN (United Nations) Women comprised of industry leaders, decision-makers, and creatives – acknowledges that advertisers have “the power to influence culture and society” and “must ensure the advertising or content we create shows people as progressive, authentic and multi-dimensional.” They write: “We must cooperate to intervene and dismantle harmful stereotypes in the pursuit of a truly equal world.”

The BBB National Programs' Children’s Advertising Review Unit recently spotlighted the need to broaden the definition of representation in children’s advertising. The World Federation of Advertisers – which includes the support of the world’s top marketers and industry leaders – has developed progressive best practices around responsibly depicting race and ethnicity, ability, sexuality, gender identity, and age in advertising. The WFA reminds us that diversity and inclusion aren’t “just about casting” but about asking yourself, at every stage of the creative process, “who is being depicted,” “whose lens are we seeing this character, and are your characters defined by one characteristic or something deeper? Can you imagine your character as a real person?”

A step beyond generating encouragement and awareness is accountability. Advertising self-regulation is well-suited for this role and many self-regulatory organizations (SROs) have already stepped up to the challenge. The International Chamber of Commerce Marketing Code, Article 4 states that “marketing communications should respect human dignity and should not incite or condone any form of discrimination… .”

Several SROs around the world have, years ago, incorporated this standard into their own advertising codes. SRO standards in the UK, New Zealand, Australia, Romania, the Netherlands, South Africa, Canada – to name a few – address multiple forms of discrimination in their codes such as prohibiting depictions in advertising that demean or disparage people based on their inclusion in an identifiable group. The UK, Australia, and New Zealand organizations have a robust body of case decisions directly confronting racist, misogynistic, anti-immigrant, and anti-religion advertising claims. 

While this may be of some surprise for us in the United States, most SROs have reported that “most complaints on discrimination in ads do not pose any particular difficulty and the body handling consumer complaints is often able to reach a unanimous decision.” Appropriate remedies could include recommending that the claim be discontinued and issuing press releases.

In 2019, Ad Standards Australia launched a public ‘Kinder Conditions” campaign to increase awareness of the wide range of social issues covered by various advertising and of the value of the advertising self-regulatory system which protects community standards. According to Ad Standards Australia, the campaign was designed to “challenge perceptions and remind the nation that discriminatory and offensive advertising is prohibited by the existing (advertising) standards.” and the public was encouraged to file complaints if advertising failed to reflect society’s values across wide-ranging social issues."

One element of the campaign used advertising with provocative headlines, such as “this ad is for white people only” or “if you’re a woman, don’t bother to read this ad,” to prompt viewers to nominate a “kinder ad” that celebrates diversity.        

In the United States, our advertising self-regulatory system at BBB National Programs historically has evaluated advertising primarily for truth and accuracy, usually through the National Advertising Division's review of comparative and monadic product performance claims. Opening the process (or designing a separate process) to create accountability for harmful stereotypes immediately raises the question, is this type of advertising self-regulation even feasible in the United States?

Other countries have had mechanisms in place for years, and the Children's Advertising Review Unit already has a non-stereotyping standard for children’s advertising. While government enforcement of such standards raises First Amendment concerns, our use of public decisions and press releases could initiate industry dialogue around issues of gender expression, race, religion, sexuality, and age. A small number of cases could have a very big impact on industry.

Developing a mechanism to address representation in advertisements would not be simple, but the time is now to start the conversation. Harmful stereotypes in advertising must not be a forever problem.

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