Last week, the United Kingdom’s Advertising Standards Authority banned two commercials in the country for supposedly perpetuating gender stereotypes.
The first victim was an ad for Philadelphia cream cheese. The ad features two fathers, who are so distracted by the product that they leave babies on a conveyor belt. The BBC reported that 128 people complained to the ASA about the ad, saying it suggested men were too incompetent to care for children.
The ASA also prohibited a Volkswagen ad containing shots of astronauts, a woman reading a book near a stroller, and an athlete with a prosthetic leg. What is this electric car commercial’s purported violation? It showed men “carrying out adventurous activities” juxtaposed with a woman “in a stereotypical care-giving role.”
When we learn to adapt, we can achieve anything. Introducing the 100% electric e-Golf.
— Volkswagen UK (@UKVolkswagen) December 26, 2018
AMBIGUOUS AND CONDESCENDING
The spots were banned under rules that took effect in June. The rules prohibit ads with “gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offense.” The ASA has claimed that “gender stereotypes” cause “real world harm” and could “[limit] people’s potential.”
First, how can the government be given authority to rule objectively on such subjective criteria? This could chill creative freedom in advertising. It is unclear what ads the ambiguous stereotype rules will allow, especially when the ASA bans spots as innocuous as these.
But more importantly, none of the reasons for these rules justify the government prohibiting an ad.
How does the ASA imagine seeing these ads will harm someone? If Britain’s government has any confidence in its public, it should allow them to analyze messages in advertising for themselves, rather than censoring ads with so-called harmful messages.
RELEVANCE TO THE U.S.
A downside of Americans’ lack of attention to other countries is that it lets us think we are not significantly freer than most of the developed world. Many recognize that we have looser gun laws and fewer economic regulations. But overall, many still believe that nations like Sweden, Britain, or Australia are no less free than the U.S.
Stories like this show why that perception is false.
The homeland of writers like John Stuart Mill and George Orwell shows little regard for free speech today. In 2016, London’s mayor had protein supplement ads removed from public transportation for promoting unrealistic body expectations.
Private U.K. citizens are not free on the internet, either. Last year, Mark Meechan was fined 800 pounds for a “grossly offensive” Youtube video of his pug doing a Nazi salute. In 2017, more than 3,300 people were arrested in the UK for internet trolling, according to the Times of London. About half of those people were prosecuted.
This makes me appreciate living in a country where offense is no excuse for banning something. In the United States, freedom of speech is a constitutional right, which the Supreme Court has reinforced over time. We should not exaggerate the state of other countries. However, America’s characteristic commitment to our freedoms is worth maintaining and defending.