I have previously criticized the new law, enforced by the U.K.’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), that bans gender stereotypes in advertising. It is the ultimate expression of the “nanny state” phenomenon in the United Kingdom where speech is increasingly regulated and sanctioned by the state along a best values agenda. Commercials for Philadelphia Cream Cheese and Volkswagen were banned. To understand how these laws are really speech controls, one needs only to watch the commercials and the vacuous response of one of the chief regulators in a recent interview.
The Philadelphia Cream Cheese ad features two men with babies is a humorous commercial where the men are so lost in enjoying the cheese that they leave their babies on a conveyor belt. Such humor is lost on the ASA. Of course, if it were two women taking care of babies, the problem would be stereotyping women as responsible for childcare. Take the Volkswagen commercial. You have to look closely because the problem is that the astronauts and hikers were men but there was a brief shot of a woman with a baby. Conclusion? Obviously Volkswagen thinks women cannot be astronauts or hikers and only mother.
So 128 people complained, according to the ASA. The commercial played to hundreds of millions but 128 people complained and the ASA went into vapors. Part of the scourge of speech controls is that it creates an insatiable appetite for silencing others. In the United Kingdom, people are now empowered to bring civil and criminal actions against those with opposing views or, with the ASA, perceived values.
ASA is a perfectly Orwellian institution and issued the following statement without even a hint of self-awareness of the sheer absurdity of its mission:
By juxtaposing images of men in extraordinary environments and carrying out adventurous activities with women who appeared passive or engaged in a stereotypical care-giving role, we considered that the ad directly contrasted stereotypical male and female roles and characteristics in a manner that gave the impression that they were exclusively associated with one gender.
“Investigation manager” Jesse Tye has been giving interviews explaining how the ban may have avoided egregious gender-based injury: “The types of harms we might be talking about are, for example, affecting people’s aspirations. You know it might affect the career choices girls make or boys make.”
So that is the basis for banning a commercial? Because some people might be affected by not seeing at least one more female figure in a commercial. If these folks are that fragile, a Volkswagen commercial will make no difference at all.
Listen to this interview:
Note that she does nothing but repeat the mission statement of the ASA and does not respond to the obvious point that replacing the men in the Philadelphia Cream Cheese commercial with women would easily qualify as stereotyping in the other direction.
The ASA has given its critics precisely the arbitrarily and capricious action that most of us anticipated when they were tasked with censoring commercial speech.