In what ways can marketing and digital communications be ‘ethical’? Part 1
Updated: Nov 9
The following post is the first in a three-part series of blogs attempting to answer this question by exploring three case studies.
This case study examines a marketing communications campaign that did not align with industry codes of practice and standards:
Match.com. You can watch the advert by clicking here.
Founded in 1993 and part of the larger Match Group, the brand's website asserts they have "pioneered online dating, hundreds of millions of members from all ages, races, genders, sexual orientations, and backgrounds have used our apps to form meaningful connections.” (Match Group, 2022)
In 2022, the brand released a three-part series of TikTok videos to demonstrate couples performing small gestures for each other.
The video presents a woman performing three tasks for her male partner with an audio description.
“I will make him his protein shake after he’s been to the gym,
“I always make sure he has a fresh towel and socks after his shower”
“I put the football on for him every evening” (Independent, 2022)
After receiving a complaint, the ASA ruled the post breached CAP edition 12’s codes 1.3, 4.1 and 4.9, and the brand was asked to remove the content. (ASA, 2022)
I have conducted a PESTLE analysis to critique this post and the ASA’s decision concerning ethics (see appendix 1). For this case study, we will focus on the legal and sociological elements to give a broader context to the campaign.
In 1982, the ASA published the first research into Women’s attitudes to ads. It found that “most women disliked images of sexual suggestiveness and stereotypes in advertising” (ASA, 2022). Codes of practice were later introduced and adapted to “prevent ads from causing harm and serious or widespread offence and require them to be socially responsible.” (ASA, 2022). In 2017, the ASA audited its current codes of practice. The report found that while “ASA decisions relating to body image, sexualisation and objectification are broadly in the right place”(...)” “other factors presented in this report strongly indicate that it is necessary to introduce tougher standards to restrict some additional gender stereotypes depicting roles and characteristics or which mock people for not conforming to stereotype, because of their potential to cause harm.” (ASA, 2022)
As of February 2022, approximately 76 percent of women in Great Britain thought that more should be done to achieve gender equality in relation to their being a gender balance in politics (Statitsa, 2022). Data shows that 60% of the UK thinks giving women equal rights hasn’t gone far enough, which was the second highest globally (Statista, 2020) and that “68% of girls feel held back by harmful gender stereotypes” (P.I.UK, 2021)
This analysis reveals a concatenation of legislation and changing social values with a clear trajectory. Notably, much of the legislation was well-established at the time of the match.coms’ campaign. For example, the most recent tightening of CAP code guidelines relating to gender stereotyping was in 2017. When factoring this in with the growing public awareness of the issue, it seems hard to understand that Match.com could not have foreseen the ad's reaction.
1.3 - Marketing communications must be prepared with a sense of responsibility to consumers and to society.
This code breach may explain how this advert was able to slip through. Recent research from the IPOS (2021) found, “The weight of evidence suggests that, wherever they appear or are reinforced, gender stereotypes can lead to mental, physical and social harm which can limit the potential of groups and individuals.” This highlights the responsibility advertisers have to consider unintended outcomes.
4.1 Marketing communications must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of: age; disability; gender; gender reassignment; marriage and civil partnership; pregnancy and maternity; race; religion or belief; sex; and sexual orientation.
The ASA lists match.coms’ response to the ruling explaining that
the post was unscripted and out of context, as the other videos show the male partner performing the tasks. While this may be true, the fact that this video was used at all shows the ‘particular care’ stated by the code was not taken.
4.9 Marketing communications must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm, or serious or widespread offence.
Match.com (2022) further states the ad did not depict time-intensive tasks and that they didn’t believe the post implied the woman had to do a larger portion of domestic chores. This explanation feels post-hoc and falls apart when contrasted with the using ‘always’ and ‘every within the dialogue’, which seem abrasive to a modern viewer.
Was the verdict too strict?
The ASA (2022) only refers to a single “Complainant, who believed that the ad was sexist and perpetuated negative gender stereotypes, challenged whether it was harmful and offensive?” When addressing the issue of ‘widespread offence”, an argument could be made that this judgment was strict in comparison to Match.com 2016 ad, which has received 1200 complaints to date and was upheld.. This difference is addressed in the regulation as the ASA (2022) states,” The fact that a product is offensive to some people is not grounds for finding a marketing communication in breach of the Code.“ There is a distinction between offence and harm, and given the IPOS (2021) report, we know gender stereotypes can cause the latter and are singled out within the legal code.
The controversy of Match.com was not that it bravely tried to promote an important message. It was ultimately negligence that may have created a negative association that could affect future sales. Research shows that younger generations take into consideration recent news. For example. “80% of Gen-Z reporting “changing their minds about a purchase after reading negative social news (Oligivy, 2022).
With just a bit of care and responsibility, Match.com could not only have saved themselves negative PR but also benefited from a successful full campaign. The IPSOS (2021) report on Women in advertising found that “When advertisements positively portray women, there is an increased likelihood to have a positive impact on long-term Brand Relationships as well as short-term behaviour change”
Given the legal and societal context, we have discussed it’s this seems naive to have not foreseen such a reaction that could easily have been prevented with a simple edit.
A.S.A. 2022. ‘Match.com International Ltd (05.10.22). A.S.A.[online]. Available at: https://www.asa.org.uk/rulings/match-com-international-ltd-a22-1160258-match-com-international-ltd.html.[Accessed 9th October 2022].
ASA. 2017 ‘Advertising guidance on depicting gender stereotypes likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offence. Available at: https://www.asa.org.uk/static/6c98e678-8eb7-4f9f-8e5d99491382c665/guidance-on-depicting-gender-stereotypes.pdf [Accessed 9th Oct. 2022].
A.S.A 2010. ‘Committee of Advertising Practice Our History (2010). A.S.A [online] Available at: https://www.asa.org.uk/about-asa-and-cap/our-history.html. [Accessed 9th October 2022].
ASA. 2017 ‘A report on gender stereotypes in advertising Summary report’ . Available at: https://www.asa.org.uk/static/uploaded/e27718e5-7385-4f25-9f07b16070518574.pdf
[Accessed 9th Oct. 2022].
BENSON, Sue. (2021). ‘How the portrayal of women in advertising affects brand perception and behaviour’.The Behaviours Agency [online] . Available at: https://thebehavioursagency.com/women-in-advertising/ [Accessed 8 Oct. 2022].
BOWLER, Hannah. (2022) ‘Match.com ad banned by ASA for showing women as ‘subservient’ to men’. The Drum [online] Available at: https://www.thedrum.com/news/2022/10/05/matchcom-ad-banned-asa-showing-women-subservient-men [Accessed 8 Oct. 2022].
IPSOS. 2020. ‘Share of people worldwide who believe that giving women equal rights has gone far enough in 2020, by country (03.2020). Statista. [Online]. Available at https://www.statista.com/statistics/992909/share-people-believe-giving-women-equal-rights-gone-far-enough-country/. [Accessed 30th Oct. 2022].
PLAN INTERNATIONAL UK. ‘International Day of the Girl: 68% of UK girls feel held back by harmful gender stereotypes (11.08.2022) P.I.UK. [online]. Available at: https://plan-uk.org/media-centre/international-day-of-the-girl-68-of-girls-feel-held-back-by-harmful-gender-stereotypes. [Accessed 19th Oct. 2022].
MATCH, Ltd. 2021. ‘Creating meaningful connection impact report (2021) Available at:https://d1sud0deeo84nn.cloudfront.net/LSpuM0E2wTJs2U8t8fVSnwMqFEflwVRAG8VBh1EU.pdf [Accessed 15th Oct. 2022].
MINTEL. 2019 ‘The evolution of marketing to women (08.03.2019)’. Mintel [online].Available at: https://www.mintel.com/blog/media-and-advertising-market-news/the-evolution-of-marketing-to-women. [Accessed 9th Oct. 2022].
OLGIVY, 2022. “For Gen-Z brand is what you share’ (2022). Olgivy. Available at: https://www.ogilvy.com/ideas/gen-z-brand-what-you-share-not-what-you-sell-part-i
[Accessed 9th Oct. 2022].
URLAGE, Jill. 2021. Women in advertising the power of positive representation for a better society and more successful brand (01.10. 21).IPSOS. Available a: thttps://www.ipsos.com/sites/default/files/ct/publication/documents/2021-08/Women-in-advertising.pdf [Accessed 25th Oct. 2022].
YOUGOV. 2022. ‘Do you think gender equality has been achieved in relation to equal gender balance in politics? (03.2022). Statista [online]. Available at https://www.statista.com/statistics/1276978/women-s-opinion-on-equal-gender-balance-in-politics/. [Accessed 29th October 2022].
Figure 1: Match.com 2021. Small Gestures. [film still]. Available at : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UbQKP8CZRq4 [accessed 10th October 2021]