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BREAKING NEWS: Unilever to unstereotype portrayal of gender in advertising

CANNES – Today, in a rallying cry to the global advertising industry, Unilever publicly announced #unstereotype – a global ambition for all of its brands and the industry at large to advance advertising away from stereotypical portrayals of gender; delivering fresh campaigns that are more relevant to today’s consumer.

The global company, Unilever is urging marketers globally to be aware of the outdated stereotypes of gender, that advertising still propagates and the fact that progressive portrayals are proven to not only be better for society, but better for brands.

Aline Santos, Executive Vice President of Global Marketing for Unilever, says: “Stereotyping in advertising is a prevalent issue for all genders. However, our research shows that the negative effects are most keenly felt when it comes to representations of females. In fact, 40% of women say they do not identify at all with the women they see in adverts. Advertising can be a powerful force in leading positive cultural change. We believe it is our responsibility, alongside the industry, to be at the forefront of this change by positively portraying people as they truly are today – progressive ads will lead us to a progressive future for all.”


As one of the biggest global advertisers, Unilever carried out multiple in-depth studies around the world over the last two years to better understand how female identity has evolved and how brands can be more relevant and better connected.

Aline Santos continues: “We have validated through testing with Millward Brown that more progressive advertising generates stronger engagement, talkability and delivers better branded impact. This shows that not only is there an important societal imperative for this change but a business imperative as well; it’s an important journey that we must go on if we want to ensure we are truly maximizing the potential of our creative outputs for today’s audiences.”

Unilever plans to advance portrayals of gender in its ads with a special focus on women by addressing three key areas; Role Personality and Appearance. Roles should more broadly represent aspirations and wider achievements beyond product-related responsibilities. Personalities depicted should shift to become more authentic and three dimensional. Appearance should be presented as enjoyable and non-critical, creating a positive and creative interest in being whoever you want to be.

Keith Weed, Global CMO, Unilever, says: “The time is right for us as an industry to challenge and change how we portray gender in our advertising. Our industry spends billions of dollars annually shaping perceptions and we have a responsibility to use this power in a positive manner. As Unilever we are at the start of a journey, and we are passionate about challenging the stereotypes that are pervasive.”

Unilever’s brands are already making waves with pioneering and breakthrough campaigns. In fact, earlier this week Brooke Bond Red Label’s 6-Pack won the Grand Prix Glass Lion award for a campaign that shatters stereotypes in India by celebrating a gender identity that has traditionally not been accepted. For the first time the brand created ‘6-Pack’, India’s first transgender band, a bold move in a place like India where the transgendered are ostracized even though they legally have equal rights. The band has been welcomed with open arms by music lovers and featured heavily in lead music shows. Through this association, Brooke Bond is spreading the message of inclusiveness and encouraging people to become more accepting, break barriers and bond over a cup of tea.

Axe’s Find Your Magic has similarly been widely applauded by both consumers and the communications industry for its new positioning which is liberating for people, where genuine connection beats conquest. Axe will continue to be about attraction, but we are portraying the modern, relevant, genuine world of attraction – the true magic that happens between two equals.

Communications from other core brands like Dove, Knorr, and Lifebuoy have also been breaking their category molds by shaking-up and rethinking the creative process from development right through to execution.

Aline continues: “With our Knorr brand, we recognized that traditional gender roles around food had started to blur and cooking had become much more inclusive and indeed on trend, like the Masterchef series. For Knorr to remain relevant, be inspirational and progressive, we knew we needed to change – niching our foodie conversation to specific gender roles seemed outdated, that’s why when we portray our consumers today you see divorced dads, groups of students and millennials, not just the traditional stereotyped perfect family with mum doing the cooking.”

Knorr’s latest #loveatfirsttaste global campaign is a great example of how flavor, cooking and food can help drive more meaningful connections across gender, race and age and how understanding your flavor profile can even bring you love.

Aline continues: “Lifebuoy has taken the conscious step to portray women as the voice of authority, the one who influences the family and leads change. We used progressive personalities like a real doctor or a real life Bollywood mother who are known to stand for women’s rights and the cause of Help a Child Reach 5. We took casting seriously to counter advertising stereotypes.”

A recent Lifebuoy campaign features not only a female doctor, a role rarely depicted in Indian pop culture, but a pregnant, female doctor as the voice of authority. This change reflects shifts happening in markets like India with working mothers in high level roles; helping continue to drive an evolution by providing an aspirational opportunity for women.

Keith Weed announced #unstereotype during his Keynote address at Cannes on Wednesday. The initiative was further unveiled via a panel discussion, moderated by BBC presenter Lucy Hockings on Thursday, 23 June, with Aline Santos. The panel also featured Actress Alysia Reiner, Bollywood Director, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer at Lowe India, R. Balki, Chief Brand Officer at Mattel, Juliana Chugg and Deputy Executive Creative Director at BBH, Rosie Arnold.

R. Balki, Chairman at Lowe India says: “As we broaden depictions of people in our advertising, we will broaden creative opportunities; leading to progressive ads that are more enjoyable and generate stronger emotional response. This an exciting proposition that I’d love to see the global marketing community embrace.”

Madeline Di Nonno, President of Glass Lions Jury and CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media says:“Geena and I are heartened by this significant and progressive move from Unilever. Media is the only business industry when we can literally paint a picture of the world the way we want it to be. 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.”

Several of Unilever’s partner agencies have already confirmed that they will be adopting the new approach – including BBH, 72andSunny, JWT, DDB, MullenLowe and Ogilvy, with many more likely to follow suit.

Santos concludes: “We hope that #unstereotype inspires others in the industry to join us and commit to building brands in a way that puts advertising on the forefront of leading culture with progressive portrayals of everyone.”

Highlights from the #unstereotype panel, held during the Cannes Lions 2016, can be viewed at: Getty Images



“With Axe, the aim is to use both our communications and our products to celebrate individuality over stereotype; to liberate guys from the pressure to “be a man” and instead encourage them to ask “what kind of man am I?” In conversations with thousands of men all over the world, we discovered that men face a huge amount of pressure to conform to narrow ideas of masculinity; we want to explode those boundaries and encourage men to be whoever the hell they want to be. We’re thrilled to be working with a company committed to something as bold as #unstereotype, and proud to do our part with Axe to push the conversation, and ultimately culture, forward”, says Stephanie Feeney, Director of Strategy 72andSunny Amsterdam.”


Tammy Einav, Managing Director adam&eve DDB: “With the privilege of working in the communications industry comes the great responsibility of ensuring we are not only embracing but driving the positive and fair representation of women in advertising.”

Bartle Bogle Hegarty:

“BBH believes in the power of difference, of zagging when the world is zigging. This means we celebrate what makes every brand, product, person, colleague, client, man, woman, LGBTQ+ person and everyone, really, unique and awesome in their own way. Not just because it’s right but it also leads to better working environments and importantly for our industry, more creative and inspiring work. We’re really happy to be backing the Unilever Unstereotype agenda and excited to see where it will take us.”

J. Walter Thompson:

“We believe that we can unstereotype women by celebrating their achievements and aspirations. We truly begin to unstereotype women when we believe in female capital and their value as leaders, scientists, pioneers, athletes, actors and activists. Femininity is then a strength not a weakness.”

Mullen Lowe:

“We are excited about partnering with Unilever in the Unstereotyping mission. Our commitment is that we will review all our work, from Idea to execution, whatever the channel, through the unstereotyping lens.”

“This is a great initiative. Unconscious stereotyping is rife in the communications world, be it tying women to the kitchen or making fun of men and their uselessness in the home. Unstereotyping goes beyond gender to challenge all of us to represent people and undermine stereotypes.”

“Women are the main purchasers of many of Unilever’s products, and therefore the target of much of their communication. Our pledge is to always remember women are people, who choose to take on certain roles, and also choose not to be defined by any one of them”.

“We pledge to genuinely unstereotype, from ideas to executions-not to simply replace one stereotype with another”

Ogilvy & Mather:

“Ogilvy & Mather is proud to support Unilever’s ‘unstereotype’ mission to bring awareness and, ultimately, action to gender quality across the globe. This is a cultural issue that affects every corner of the world and will have massive economic implications if it is not rectified. Specifically, there has not been enough progress in gender portrayal in advertising and this is a timely and crucial initiative from Unilever. Ogilvy & Mather has been on our own journey to bring gender equality to our enterprise and have an ambition to become a company with the most diverse workforce in the world. We are dedicated to reaching this ambition through our people, work and processes on behalf of Unilever brands and we commend our client for taking action on one of the most important issue.

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