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OpinionColumnistsLane Filler

Trying to change world an ad at a time

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It’s amazing how sexist attempts to banish sexism can be.

In England last week, the Committee of Advertising Practice proclaimed that harmful gender stereotypes would be banned in advertisements on everything from television to social media to online websites.

As soon as I read about the move, several questions bolted through my mind like agile chipmunks on a sugar high:

  • What the heck is the Committee of Advertising Practice?
  • It can do that?
  • How do you decide which stereotypes are harmful, or even, in these ever-changing times, what portrayals of either gender (or nonbinary folks, have we even stereotyped them yet?) count as stereotypes and which are just portrayals of individuals going about their wacky product-using day?

It turns out the Committee of Advertising Practice absolutely can ban certain ads in England. It did so most famously in 2016 when it cracked down on Gucci for featuring a female model who looked “unhealthily thin” in a campaign.

Whether a ban was the best way to stop the grotesque practice of presenting grown women with arms and legs the width of a 6-year-old’s as the female body ideal is hard to say, but the motivation certainly makes sense. Eating disorders are among the most deadly mental illnesses, with 1.6 million sufferers in England and 8 million in the United States facing a 10 percent mortality rate. Glorifying the body image that feeds that is no more defensible than selling crack addiction as an adorable lifestyle choice.

But this time around they seem to be banning not unrealistic portrayals, but realistic ones. The new rules state: “Advertisements must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.” The group goes on to give examples implying that if you tried to make documentary commercials out of most of our actual lives by installing cameras in our homes, these videos of normal human behavior would be too dangerous to show.

One ban, on ads depicting “a man or woman failing to achieve a task specifically because of their gender e.g. a man’s inability to change nappies (diapers) or a woman’s inability to park a car,” is oddly old-fashioned. It’s as if the people who wrote these new standards are trying to solve the media sins of 1981. I do not actually know a father under the age of 60 who can’t change diapers with ease, and these days women and men are equally, horrifyingly bad at parking.

Another rule that shocked me: “Where an ad features a person with a physique that does not match an ideal stereotypically associated with their gender, the ad should not imply that their physique is a significant reason for them not being successful, for example, in their romantic or social lives.”

This is like claiming gravity does not exist. Physical attractiveness is a key factor in many types of success, and many buying decisions. It’s a truth that is both regrettable and at the core of human experience. And unlike sexism or racism, I don’t think it’s budged an inch in modern times.

But the weirdest example of what’s off-limits is “an ad that depicts a man with his feet up and family members creating a mess around the home while a woman is solely responsible for cleaning up the mess.” But isn’t the woman the hero in this? I get that we don’t want boys to grow up to be lazy layabouts, but I’m not sure we do women any favors by hiding the fact that men can be so useless and women are so often forced to work so hard.

 Lane Filler is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.