Britain Likely To Ban Advertisements Supporting Harmful Gender Stereotype — Can Pakistan Do The Same?

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British Advertisements To Face Charges


Advertisements have long been used as tools to change mindsets and modify attitudes. The most common goal of this is to elicit a buying behavior. Like most other mediums, advertisements don’t just sell products or services, they also entertain us. However, there are many secondary effects of advertisements. One of these is reinforcing or changing gender roles. Keeping these effects in mind, Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority has proposed laws against advertisements that reinforce a staunch sexist outlook. Soon, Britain is likely to ban advertisements supporting harmful gender stereotypes. Is a similar ban possible in Pakistan?

The Advertising Standards Authority is Britain’s institution for regulating the advertising industry. It released a report titled “Depictions, Perceptions and Harm,” in July 2017. The report explores if existing advertising rules in Britain address “the potential for harm or offense arising from the inclusion of gender stereotypes in ads.”

In this report, ‘harmful’ gender stereotyping includes  “body image, objectification, sexualization, gender characteristics and roles, and mocking people for not conforming to gender stereotypes.”

According to the key findings of the report,

“Gender stereotypes have the potential to cause harm by inviting assumptions about adults and children that might negatively restrict how they see themselves and how others see them. These assumptions can lead to unequal gender outcomes in public and private aspects of people‘s lives; outcomes, which are increasingly acknowledged to be detrimental to individuals, the economy and society in general.”

The Advertising Standards Authority also discovered that

“Ads that feature gender stereotypes have the potential to cause harm by contributing to unequal gender outcomes, although advertising is understood to be only one of many different factors that contribute, to a greater or lesser extent, to unequal gender outcomes.”

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Many have welcomed this report’s findings and and the expected reforms in Britain’s advertising industry. Advertising content influences viewers, especially children, strongly. According to the American Psychological Association, children who are younger than 8 years don’t have the mental ability to differentiate that commercials are designed to make people want to buy something. Hence children are most likely to believe whatever they see.

Are The Pakistanis Following The Same Path?

Now to take a look at the general content of Pakistani advertisement. It is obvious that most Pakistani advertisements are not only tolerating but also encouraging many harmful attitudes. These include an overemphasis on superficial beauty, most commonly seen in the fairness cream ads. Consumption of unhealthy foods and of course, harmful gender stereotypes of the sort mentioned above.

One may argue that there is a world of a difference between the British and Pakistani societies. In Pakistan, the gender roles and stereotypes are much more rigid than in Britain. But no one can deny the fact that the Pakistani society is evolving at a rapid pace, thanks to the internet and urbanization. More and more women are joining the workforce every year. They are opting for new career paths and breaking down barriers in every field. Why, then, can’t the Pakistani media evolve too?

This question brings up the classic debate of whether the media is a submissive mirror of the society or if it is an active participant in bringing about societal change. Without taking any sides, it is safe to say that most Pakistani advertisements have an alarming level of ethical and intellectual depravity. Even in the 21st century, commercials in Pakistan revolve around rishtas, weddings, births, nationalism and, if the client and ad agency are feeling a bit adventurous, a bit of casual romance.

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All this may not seem very wrong, but for the little girl or boy watching these commercials, it is. Such visuals reinforce the fact that men and women have a defined set of roles, and that’s fine. What is not fine, however, is ridiculing people for not conforming to these roles. And ridiculing others is something that people in our society are very good at.

So now to address the question: Can ( can, not should) Pakistan reinforce a ban even remotely like this? Most people would disagree. This is because PEMRA ,the state’s regulatory authority for electronic media, is considered a toothless tiger. It is not as if PEMRA has no rules for advertising. On the contrary, a code of conduct for the advertising industry was made in 2015. The problem (surprise, surprise) lies in the implementation of the rules. Short answer: It is highly unlikely .

But should Pakistani media aspire to protect its children from mind-warping notions of what they can or cannot do? Or should we remain stuck in the age-old ideas of gender stereotyping, which do nothing but hold people back from fulfilling their potentials? Frankly, the world is changing. If we, as a nation intend to catch up with the others, we will have to upgrade our concepts of what each gender is capable of. The advertising industry now has to choose whether it wants to be a silent spectator or a pioneer in the arena of social change. In my opinion, the answer to this question is an unapologetic Yes.

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Jasiah Fatima