This information provides a general overview of Board 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 Board 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 Board 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.

This information refers to specific ASB case numbers to provide practical examples of the issues under discussion.  These were current at the time of writing and should be used as a starting point only – please refer to case reports for more up to date examples.

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.

Definition

The AANA Code of Ethics prohibits advertisements containing discrimination or vilification on account of ‘sex’. The Board 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.  However, while the Summary is applicable to both women and men, some issues are particularly relevant to the portrayal of women (for example, sexualised images of women).

Specific guidelines

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 Board 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 Board. Images of genitalia and images which are highly sexually suggestive are not acceptable. The Board 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.

Example: 0052/15 Honey Birdette; 0468/14 Vibes Adult Shop; 0461/12 Wicked Campers; 0086/12 Wicked Campers

Research conducted by the Advertising Standards Bureau in 2010 clearly indicates that a significant proportion of the community highly objects to strong and explicit sexual depiction in advertising, especially when the sexual depiction is irrelevant to the product.

Age

The Board pays particular attention to age in a sexualised situation

When older people are depicted, the Board considers it important that women and men are portrayed in similar manner – portraying older women in a less positive light to older men would generally be unacceptable to the Board. 

Example: 0081/13 IAG; 0046/13 Fosters; 0016/13 One Harvest; 0501/12 McDonalds; 0240/12 and 0231/12 Unilever

Denigration

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 Board. 

Example: 0062/15 Kelly’s on King; 0476/14 AMI; 0343/14 AMI; 0266/14 Macket Bracket; 0165/14 Southern Cross Austereo; 0052/14 Beiersdof; 0032/14 Mardi Gras; 0065/13  Virgin Money;  0505/12 and 0504/12 Virgin Money; 0482/12 Kellog;  0442/12 Kia;   0405/11 Yum Restaurants; 0315/11 Origin Energy;  0224/11 The Tool Shop

Further discussion of the issues raised in this document may be found in exploitative and degrading advertising.

Other considerations

In addition to the specific issues outlined above, the Board will also consider the nature of the media used when developing campaigns, and the times in which advertisements are placed. 

Respondents to ASB’s 2010 community research expressed significant concern about these issues, in line with the views of the Board.

Outdoor advertising: Outdoor advertising is in the public domain and has a broad audience. The Board 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.

Example: 0081/13 IAG ; 0046/13 Fosters;  0461/12 Wicked Campers ; 0226/11 The Tool Shop  

Digital media: Given the global reach of electronic networks and the variety and diversity of recipients, the Board 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.

Timing: Advertising on television is prescribed by the Broadcasting Act and classified by Free TV. The Board is particularly concerned that only material that is suitable for a particular classification zone is broadcast in that zone.

Level of community concern about this issue

Community activity and political sensitivity about gender portrayal in advertising has been reflected in complaints to the Advertising Standards Bureau and was of particular concern to respondents to the ASB’s 2010 community research on this topic.

Gender portrayal concerns are identified in roughly half of all complaints made to the Advertising Standards Bureau.

The ASB 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 the City of Melbourne -A guide to reporting sexist advertising.