Free Speech

The U.K. Has Banned 'Harmful Gender Stereotypes' in Advertisements

The move is an assault on free speech.


Men can't cook, and women are bad at sports. Those stereotypes are just two of many that, as of last week, are illegal in British advertisements.

Indeed, the United Kingdom's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) instituted a ban on gender stereotypes "that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence." According to the ASA's overview, setups that will likely be in violation of the law include but are not limited to:

    • An ad that depicts a man with his feet up and family members creating mess around a home while a woman is solely responsible for cleaning up the mess.
    • An ad that depicts a man or a woman failing to achieve a task specifically because of their gender e.g. a man's inability to change nappies [diapers]; a woman's inability to park a car.
    • 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.
    • An ad that seeks to emphasise the contrast between a boy's stereotypical personality (e.g. daring) with a girl's stereotypical personality (e.g. caring) needs to be handled with care.
    • An ad aimed at new mums which suggests that looking attractive or keeping a home pristine is a priority over other factors such as their emotional wellbeing.

The ban was implemented following an ASA review which concluded that stereotypical depictions pave the way for "real-world psychological, physical, economic, social and political harm for individuals and groups." Specifically, it mentions that the media portrayals may influence which toys children play with, "which can have long-term impacts." In adults, a stereotypically feminine rendering of women's roles can decrease their "motives and ambition, attitudes to involvement in politics, performance on maths tests and preferences for leadership roles."

Certain scenarios are exempt from the new law. An ad may depict "a woman doing the shopping" or "a man doing DIY," so long as it is not presented in a light deemed insulting by the ASA. It also permits gender stereotypes when the ad explicitly challenges them.

Gender stereotypes "constrict people's choices," says the ASA review. Yet the ban itself does precisely that, as it limits companies from advertising their products as they see fit and shields consumers from ideas associated with wrongthink.