The Philadelphia story couldn’t be told today… | Alex Clarke | Opinion



Many years ago, a friend’s mother asked her if her husband was going to accompany them to the playground. “No, Mum,” my pal replied, with what the cynical might assume was false brightness. “He’s seen the kids go down a slide before.”

Now, in these times when, as enraged libertarians like to point out, one can hardly crack a common-or-garden joke without being sent to the stocks, she’d probably be fined for perpetuating a negative gender stereotype.

Well: only if she were making an ad and sticking it on primetime TV. Last week, under new rules that empower the Advertising Standards Authority to regulate depictions of men and women in ways that can “play a part in limiting people’s potential”, came the first news of infringements. The offenders? Some cream cheese and an electric car.

In the first, a pair of new dads, who do not appear to know one another, become so beguiled by a Philadelphia-slathered bagel that they accidentally abandon their infants to a food-delivery conveyor belt of the type you might see in London’s hipsterish Hoxton. The ad poses many questions: why are these men so excited by the kind of al-desko lunch produced by a quick rootle round the fridge? Why have they, in contravention of all the laws of British social life, struck up a conversation? Given the slowness and generous width of the conveyor belt, how much danger are these children actually in?

No matter: our hapless cafe-goers are prime examples of the damaging notion that men are ineffectual care-givers. Out they go!

Volkswagen’s advertisement for its eGolf car is perhaps even more bemusing. A male and female couple camp on the side of a cliff, though the woman is only briefly glimpsed, dozing. Cut to some astronauts, and then to a male para-athlete doing the long jump and, finally, to a woman sitting on a bench, beside a pram. A car, presumably an eGolf, glides by, causing the woman to look up, perhaps wistfully. Who is in the car? Could it be a camper, an astronaut and an athlete, off to meet their babysitting chums in the bagel cafe? Who knows: you carry on sitting on a roadside with your kid, Barbara-no-mates. Perhaps the lady camper will come and help you change its nappy.

The VW eGolf advert features a male and female couple camping on the side of a cliff.

The VW eGolf advert features a male and female couple camping on the side of a cliff. Photograph: ASA/PA

Both ads are baffling, but are they harmful? Common sense tells us the answer: in isolation, unlikely; as a cog in the machine of advanced capitalism and entrenched gender power structures, quite possibly.

But why stop at gender? We don’t appear to be bothered that the protagonists of these ads are white and look fairly well off – as of course they need to be, to afford fancy lunches and new cars. After all, we know how to reach black people: you simply paste your message on the inside of a fried chicken box. The poor? A bogof deal or a payday loan. God did not give us seven seasons of Mad Men in order for us not to understand that stereotyping is hardwired into the DNA of advertising. Its effects are pernicious, even if women do not actually believe that they bleed blue liquid once a month, nor men that they will turn into Gerard Butler, aka “the man of today”, if they splash on a bit of Hugo Boss. That we believe these things on a literal basis is not important; that we reach for our wallets, trusting that we might make a marginal improvement to our lives with each new purchase, is central. And if you’re going to overhaul the world of selling to the psyche, I would humbly suggest that cream cheese is not the place to start.

Anyway, a thought for Philadelphia, which back in the 1980s enjoyed great success with a pair of young women, played by Sara Crowe and Ann Bryson, whose lunchboxes were transformed by the product. Ditzy, verging on vacuous, unposh, irrepressibly cheerful, they’d be unlikely to get past the censors. But in these troubled times, it’s worth a go.

Alex Clark writes for the Guardian and the Observer