Publish Date: Nov 29, 2019


The Advertising Regulatory Board has ruled that a Volkswagen radio ad stereotypes women and ordered it to be withdrawn.

The ad depicts a man in a mall who is accompanying his shoe-shopping female partner. The voiceover reports from the scene:

“It’s dusk and you’re in unfamiliar territory, surrounded by predators hunting for fresh prey. And they found it. 50% off all shoes. They attack, lunging mercilessly. As you guard the 12 shopping bags, seated on a bench alongside the other men, you watch the feeding frenzy take place. This is Shoe Sale Country and you don't belong here, man. This is not your habitat, so go where you belong in the V6 Amarok... Visit your Volkswagen dealership for great Amarok V6 offers today, man.

Professor Susan Goldstein from the School of Public Health at Wits lodged a complaint with the ARB, calling the ad “extremely sexist”.

She submitted that the commercial is gender stereotyping and, in an environment of toxic masculinity and among the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world, this is harmful.

For its part, Volkswagen said the ad was intended as a parody, which does not promote or depict any violence against one gender. Volkswagen said it’s a “harmless exaggeration of a real-life scenario intended to amuse listeners”.

They submitted that the reference to “Shoe Sale Country” makes it clear that this is a fictional world and no reasonable person would assume that Volkswagen's use of the paradoxical scenario is intended to create a negative gender stereotype. The ad also does not promote or depict any violence against one gender. Also - only one person complained.

The ARB accepted that Volkswagen’s assertion that the commercial is clearly a hyperbole and exaggerates a scenario for humorous effect.

But it argues that that the use of gender stereotypes in advertising contributes to gender inequality in South African society, a country fraught with “toxic masculinity”, and very high rates of gender-based violence. The commercial entrenches the gender stereotype that men do not like to shop and feel out of their depth in a shoe sale environment.

“Furthermore, the continued emphasis on the word ‘man’, inviting ‘man’ to test drive the VW vehicle, conveys the message that the vehicle in question is for men, marketed at men and driven by men. The overall take out is that there are certain environments in which either men or women are more comfortable and where they naturally belong – women are comfortable shopping for shoes, and men are comfortable driving high-end bakkies.”

The ARB says the analogy between shoe shopping and a frenzied hunt (“in unfamiliar territory, surrounded by predators hunting for fresh prey”; “They attack, lunging mercilessly”; “the feeding frenzy”) compares women to wild animals, and creates the impression that the shoe shopping women are in their natural environment, acting purely on animal instinct.

The ARB took guidance from the advertising authority in the UK, which last year introduced new rules on gender stereotyping in advertising after its research found that it can lower the self-esteem of women “and limit their aspirations and ability to progress in key aspects of their personal and professional lives, with harmful consequences for them and for society as a whole.”

Interestingly, rel="noopener noreferrer" the first ad that the UK advertising authority banned on stereotyping grounds was also from Volkswagen. The ad contrasted male climbers, astronauts and a male athlete to a women sitting on a bench with a book and a pram.

In VW’s new South African radio commercial, the ARB says, women are portrayed as frivolous, instinct driven and irrational shoppers, while men are encouraged to seek “real” adventure.

While the context of the commercial is an intended humorous one and an exaggerated scenario, the context of the country at large is one filled with negative gender stereotypes, gender inequality and gender-based violence.

“There are arguably fewer issues of greater social concern than gender in South Africa and, however humorous and lighthearted the intentions may be, the constant entrenchment of gender stereotypes has no place in an open and democratic South African society, based on human dignity, equality and freedom,” the ARB found.

The ARB asked Volkswagen to withdraw the ad, and instructed radio stations who are members of the ARB not to play it.