By Claire Zillman
June 21, 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.

Tomorrow, 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 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.

With support from WPP, UN Women will also launch a biennial study on attitudes toward gender equality within the advertising industry. The findings, says Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women and under-secretary general of the UN, 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.

@clairezillman

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