Is Advertising Becoming Too PC To Be Funny?

It is a noble aim to remove gender stereotyping from advertising. I don't think any exec would disagree that relying on the lazy caricatures of hapless dads and passive women worrying out how their toilet smells deserve to be consigned to the past.

However, as ASA announces the first two ads to be banned for failing the stereotyping test, it's probably a good time to pause and ask whether we are at risk of making advertising way too PC to be fun and entertaining.

It's worth asking because, particularly with one case -- the Philadelphia ad -- the Mondelez-owned brand makes a very strong defence against its ban.

Its spot has two dads who are enjoying the food so much they don't realise their babies are now on the conveyor belt among other dishes of the day. Sure, it's a hapless dad caricature, but as the brand told The Guardian, it was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

If it had gone for the easiest option and had a mum losing her baby to the conveyor belt, it would have been sexist to suggest that only women look after kids. If they tell the same joke with dads, they're considered to be reinforcing an unhelpful stereotype. 

The answer that screams out is to have both a young mum and a young dad who are buddies both lose their baby on the conveyor belt, until they come full circle -- or maybe just not do the joke at all. Does a rule of only having PC-compliant jokes work? Can humour be "woke"?

The VW ad was censured for having men doing adventurous things while the only woman featured is sitting down on a bench watching a pram go by. To be honest, that one's a little more easy to see why people may have a problem.

The men are spacemen, adventurers and athletes, while the only woman featured is a mum sitting on a bench as an electric Golf drives by just loudly enough to take her nose out of a magazine.

While it may have made sense to have a female adventurer or astronaut in there in the body of the ad, it still begs the question of whether it would have been better to have a man sitting with a pram, or maybe a couple? You could see what they were going for with the "future is electric" message appearing next to a pram.

So would the ad have passed if it wasn't a woman on the bench? To be honest, it's impossible to know.

Advertising is beginning to get the equivalent of case law here as the new rules on stereotypes are turned into judgements. A strict interpretation of the rules would suggest the ASA was right on both of these occasions. However, there's got to be a nagging doubt out there in adland that this makes ads far too PC.

Every attempt at humour has to have a character who is the butt of the joke, and if we're going to run rules against who that is all the time, it's hard to see how advertisers can get out of a PC straightjacket.

My prediction is that ads will have to never make a man or a woman the butt of a joke, but rather one actor of either gender. Plus, if you're going to have some people doing fab stuff and someone doing something very mundane, the adventurers can't all be men and the magazine readers can't all be women. That latter observation is obviously a lot easier to live with.

Again, this is a noble aim, but at some stage we're going to have to be a bit more British about this and allow for compromise -- and above all else, a bit of harmless fun and humour. 

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