Why the U.S. Ad Industry Will Never Regulate Gender Stereotypes

Agencies and brands believe they can filter out cliches

2015's "TexMex Burger" ad was only one example of Carl's Jr.'s long history of gender cliches.
Carl's Jr

Gender cliches in advertising are now officially a thing of the past … or are they?

Earlier this week, the British regulatory body Advertising Standards Authority made headlines around the world by announcing its plans to take “a tougher line” on “ads that mock people for not conforming to gender stereotypes” in order to better serve the public. That news followed heavily publicized controversies over provocative ads from companies like Protein World, which revels in its own reputation for sexism.

The ASA does not have the power to outright ban offending ads as it primarily investigates consumer complaints, but it can publicly recommend that certain campaigns be pulled. And most U.K. media companies follow its guidelines.

A cross-Atlantic controversy

Debates over gender stereotypes are nothing new in the American ad industry, but R/GA svp of strategy and partnerships Jessica Greenwood believes that this sort of state-sanctioned smackdown on sexist spots will never happen in the United States. The British native argues that advertisers on both sides of the Atlantic have been moving toward “much more inclusive representations” in response to consumer demand.

“This is a form of regulation that the U.K. has implemented from the top down,” Greenwood told Adweek, “But in the U.S., those decisions are made every day by millions of people voting with their voices and their wallets.”

Gina Grillo, president and CEO of The Advertising Club of New York, agreed: “U.S. consumers vote [yay] or nay at the cash register. It’s a new world, and companies that are delivering outdated stereotypes are no longer resonating.”

John Kenny, chief strategy officer at FCB Chicago, said his key takeaway from this story is not the threat of regulation (the U.S. has no equivalent to the ASA) but the fact that “an industry that claims to be built on creativity is accused by a bureaucracy of being stereotypical.”

“Our first duty is to help brands stand out in culture, so we should be at the forefront of breaking cliches—and I think our best work does,” he added, citing McCann’s Fearless Girl as well as his own agency’s This Girl Can effort for Sport England.

Social media gives consumers a voice

By now, the news cycle has grown depressingly familiar: A brand releases a campaign that offends or irritates key members of its target audience; those consumers make their opinions known on social media; the backlash to the brand builds; the headlines fade, only to rise again in response to another misguided marketing move.

In one recent example, Shea Moisture—a hair-care company that has long catered almost exclusively to African-American women—quickly pulled an ad campaign focused on white models after some of the brand’s longtime customers spoke up on social about how they felt ignored or left behind.

Samantha Skey, president of female-focused media company SheKnows, argues that this is the very sort of self-regulation that should drive American advertisers’ decisions.

“Corporations should be responsible for the values they project through advertising; media companies should be responsible for the the messages they accept and propagate through their channels and individuals should be responsible for their ability to accept or reject the messages they consume,” she said, adding, “advertising creative should not be controlled to this degree by a regulatory body.”

With the shift into the digital age, it’s also harder for brands and agencies to justify their need for stereotypes, argues Laurel Rossi, CMO of indie agency Rauxa. “Stereotypes have long been a part of advertising as a way of short handing the story to accommodate 30-second buys and quarter-page ads,” she said. “In the digital age, where we have unlimited bandwidth for long-form storytelling, there’s little excuse for reverting to type.”