How Some of the World’s Biggest Brands Are Fighting Sexism in Advertising

Jun 20, 2017

Last year, research by conglomerate Unilever laid bare the stereotypes that exist in advertising. Just 3% of ads featured women in a leadership or managerial role. And 40% of women did not identify with their portrayal in advertising spots.

Since then, the company behind brands like Ben & Jerry's and Dove—not to mention the world's second-largest advertiser—has been trying to feature both sexes in more realistic roles through an initiative called Unstereotype. The shift started with a campaign for Knorr stock cubes that showed men, rather than women, in the kitchen. Its ads for Axe body spray have also shed their sexualized portrayal of women who lust after men; a recent campaign promotes a more enlightened version of masculinity.

On Thursday, Unilever's efforts will receive a big boost as it co-convenes with UN Women at the inaugural session of the Unstereotype Alliance at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity, an ad industry conference. Alliance participants, which include global consumer-facing companies such as Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Microsoft, Diageo and AT&T, will try to proactively address and eliminate stereotypes in advertising worldwide. Facebook, Google, and Twitter are sending representatives to the meeting, as are major ad agencies IPG and WPP, whose CEOs Michael Roth and Sir Martin Sorrell, respectively, will attend.

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“The global advertising industry brings a sophisticated science of influence, finely honed creativity and deep pockets to shaping audiences’ choices of products and services. A by-product of this powerful process has been the shaping or reinforcing of negative stereotypes of both women and men," Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women and under-secretary general of the United Nations, said in a statement. "These persistent images feed into cultural norms and are a serious barrier for gender equality. We need to recognize and change them.”

UN Women, an arm of the UN that advocates for gender equality globally, has good reason to push back against old-fashioned portrayals of women. The organization's report on Women’s Economic Empowerment, released in March 2017, identified breaking stereotypes as the first of seven drivers of change to increase women's economic participation worldwide.

With support from WPP, UN Women will also launch a biennial study on attitudes toward gender equality within the advertising industry. The findings, says Mlambo-Ngcuka, will "fuel political will and financial muscle for change."

The tide already seems to be turning against ads that feature sexist characterizations of women. In February, Volkswagen’s Audi released a heartstring-tugging Superbowl spot with the tagline: “Audi of America is committed to equal pay for equal work.” In March, burger chain Carl's Jr. broke with its tradition of running ads with bikini-clad supermodels.

Companies that provide more authentic portrayals of both sexes could be rewarded by customers. That's what happened to Unilever's Dove brand after it rolled out its "real beauty" campaign featuring women of all shapes and sizes more than a decade ago. At the campaign's ten-year mark, the brand had seen sales increase from $2.5 billion to $4 billion. Keith Weed, global chief marketing and communications officer at Unilever, has pointed to it as early evidence that there's a business incentive for ad stereotypes to change.

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