This information provides a general overview of Ad Standards Community Panel determinations on complaints about the portrayal of men and women (gender) in advertising.
It is not a “how to” guide, nor does it cover all situations which require care in gender portrayal.
It is designed to assist the advertising industry, the self-regulatory body, consumers and others interested in ensuring that portrayal of women and men in advertising is positive, responsible, suitable for general viewing and contributes to the elimination of systemic discrimination based on gender.
The Community Panel seeks to ensure that the overall impression of any communication does not violate the spirit of gender equality even though the elements may not violate any particular guideline.
Humour, works of art and historical settings can all be positive elements in advertising. However, the Community Panel will consider whether in its opinion, these techniques are used as an excuse to stereotype men or women or to portray behaviour which it considers unacceptable today.
Relevant sections of the AANA Code of Ethics
2.1 Advertising or Marketing Communications shall not portray people or depict material in a way which discriminates against or vilifies a person or section of the community on account of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual preference, religion, disability, mental illness or political belief.
2.2 Advertising or Marketing Communications shall not employ sexual appeal in a manner which is exploitative and degrading of any individual or group of people.
2.4 Advertising or Marketing Communications shall treat sex, sexuality and nudity with sensitivity to the relevant audience.
The AANA Code of Ethics prohibits advertisements containing discrimination or vilification on account of ‘sex’. The Community Panel has consistently interpreted this term to include not just the physical characteristics of being a man or a woman (such as having breasts or being pregnant), but to also include discrimination or vilification on the basis of gender.
This summary acknowledges that both men and women are at risk of being portrayed in an inappropriate or potentially harmful way.
Serious and widespread offence
In areas of subjective judgement and often strongly-held beliefs, it is impossible to say that no single advertisement should ever offend anyone. In practice, the Community Panel would normally interpret rules of this sort to mean that an advertisement should not cause serious offence to the members of the group in question or the general or wider community.
Full frontal nudity and explicit pornographic language is not acceptable to the Community Panel. Images of genitalia and images which are highly sexually suggestive are not acceptable. The Community Panel considers that explicit sexual depictions in advertising, particularly where the depiction is not relevant to the product or service being advertised, are generally objectionable to the community and will offend Prevailing Community Standards.
Situations where women or men are portrayed as generally inferior to the other sex and/or their role belittled or criticised in a derogatory manner are generally considered to be unacceptable to the Community Panel.
In 2020 an amendment was made to the Code of Ethics Practice Note to provide further guidance on gender stereotyping. The Code does not prohibit advertisers from featuring women or men performing tasks commonly associated with their gender, however advertisers should take care to avoid suggesting that a particular role is exclusively performed by men or women.
The Community Panel will also consider the nature of the media used when developing campaigns, and the times in which advertisements are placed. Outdoor advertising is in the public domain and has a broad audience. The Community Panel believes that messages and images presented in this medium need to be developed with a general audience in mind and has given particular attention to the placement of such advertising e.g. close to schools and churches. Given the global reach of electronic networks and the variety and diversity of recipients, the Community Panel believes that it would be wise for digital advertisements to respect the potential sensitivities of a global audience with particular reference to principles of social responsibility and the possibility of causing offence.
Level of community concern about this issue
Community activity and political sensitivity about gender portrayal in advertising has been reflected in complaints to Ad Standards.
Ad Standards and the advertising industry have demonstrated their responsibility and commitment to good practice in this area by developing a coherent and responsible approach to the issue. This approach is grounded in ensuring that advertisements are legal, decent, honest and truthful and are prepared with a sense of obligation to the consumer and society.
Ad Standards is pleased to be included in a publication developed by Women's Health Victoria - A guide to reporting sexist advertising.