Unilever vows to drop sexist stereotypes from its ads
A Sunsilk ad from India showing women travelling independently and playing music in a band. The campaign has caused controversy in neighbouring Pakistan Photograph: YouTube
Unilever, the owner of brands including Dove and Lynx, has pledged to drop all sexist stereotypes from its advertising after research suggested just 2% of ads show intelligent women.
The world’s second-biggest advertiser, which spends €8bn (£6.3bn) a year on more than 400 brands from Sunsilk to Knorr, will unveil a global strategy to “unstereotype” its advertising and eradicate outdated portrayals of gender.
While some ads are obvious candidates for accusations of sexual stereotyping – in the UK Protein World’s “Beach Body Ready” adverts sparked widespread protest and hundreds of complaints – Unilever’s research found that stereotypes can be much more subtle and widespread across all forms of ads.
Unilever said its global ad study research found that the issue of stereotyping, conscious or otherwise, is most acute in the portrayal of women.
The research found that 40% of the women surveyed said that they do not identify at all with the women they see in advertising.
Two years of global ad research revealed more surprising, and shocking, findings.
These include that women are rarely presented as having authority – just 3% of ads feature women in managerial, leadership or professional roles – and are “disproportionately” represented in domestic roles.
The ad industry appears to believe that the life of a woman is dour in the extreme, with just 1% of the ads surveyed showing women being funny.
Dove US’s ‘Choose Beautiful’ ad
“The time is right for us as an industry to challenge and change how we portray gender in our advertising,” said Unilever chief marketing officer, Keith Weed. “Our industry spends billions of dollars annually shaping perceptions and we have a responsibility to use this power in a positive manner.”
Weed, who will unveil Unilever’s new global pledge at a keynote seminar at the Cannes Lions advertising festival on Wednesday, said that it will involve a three-pronged strategy including giving women an “authentic and three-dimensional” personality in ads.
It will also include showing roles that represent the “aspirations and broader achievements” of women, and depicting beauty in more female terms as “enjoyable, non-critical and in perspective”.
“It was globally resounding that women are ever advancing in terms of equality, structure and human rights,” said Unilever. “Yet the media and advertising specifically have been slow to reflect the changing shape of gender identity and often depict, at best, a current view of society, and sometimes a backward view.”
Unilever has already begun changing the portrayal of women in its ads.
Female beauty brand Sunsilk has been moved away from the traditional “spin and grin” shots showing glamorous women flicking their well-coiffured hair on-screen.
And Lynx, known as Axe in most global markets outside the UK, has consciously moved away from its traditional “lad-focused” strategy of showing attractive women lusting after users of the deodorant brand.
A US Lynx ad: moving beyond the ‘six-pack’ stereotype
Unilever, which has won a string of awards and critical acclaim for its portrayal of women in its Dove ads, admits it is only the start of the long process.
“As Unilever we are at the start of a journey, and we are passionate about challenging the stereotypes that are pervasive,” said Weed.
At Cannes this year Unilever has already won a coveted grand prix for an Indian campaign for tea brand Brooke Bond featuring the country’s first transgender band.
Brooke Bond’s Indian ad promoting transgender rights
Unilever’s report found that almost a third of women in the studiesfelt advertising shows them as perceived by a man.
“Media is the only business industry when we can literally paint a picture of the world the way we want it to be,” said Madeline Di Nonno, chief executive of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. “One 30-second spot can make a lifetime impression.
“Advertising as a storytelling medium is as important as the programming it is attached to. We believe advertising can take a lead position and ignite the advertising and content industries to jump on board and embrace this movement.”