At least in the United Kingdom this seems to be becoming a reality. The UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) recently banned two commercials because they were deemed to contain harmful gender stereotyping. The Volkswagen commercial shows a woman sitting quietly on a bench reading next to a baby’s stroller, while men face special challenges as astronauts and top athletes with prosthetic running legs. The spot features the tagline “When we learn to adapt, we can achieve anything.” The second banned commercial is from Mondelez and shows two fathers in a restaurant who have been entrusted by their wives to look after their babies. They fail miserably in this task because they are distracted by snacks with Philadelphia cream cheese. According to Mondelez, the ad only intended to show a positive image of men engaged in an active care-giving role in modern society. While these commercials are now banned from being broadcast in the UK, the ASA cannot impose fines on the companies.
In June 2019, new rules were introduced in the UK, according to which advertisements may not contain gender stereotypes “likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence.” Such regulations do not exist in Germany. The German Advertising Council, as a self-regulatory body of the advertising industry, may issue public reprimands, however. In the case of blatant infringements, such as where the borderline to openly sexist advertising is crossed, the advertising may also be banned by the courts in cases of violation of human dignity. As an example, the German Federal Court of Justice had issued a ban on spirits named “Busengrapscher” (“breast groper”) and “Schlüpferstürmer” (“panty raider”).
The ASA considers the use of gender stereotypes to be unacceptable in cases where stereotypical roles or characteristics are always uniquely associated with one gender, if they are the only options available to one gender, or if they are never carried out or displayed by another gender. The German Advertising Code is less far-reaching and classifies a stereotypical representation as discriminatory if it also implies that one gender is worth less or is incapable of performing certain activities. The VW campaign would therefore likely have been assessed differently by the ASA if, for example, a female astronaut had been shown.
Advertisements with gender stereotypes can therefore still not be banned in Germany. Such legislative initiatives are also not currently planned. For companies intending to launch international advertising campaigns, however, it is relevant to know the risk of possible bans. In Norway, for example, there is also a law that prohibits sexism in advertising. A Spanish law prohibits disparaging images of women’s bodies. The U.S. has comparable guidelines for self-regulation only with respect to children as a target group for advertising.