Unilever Commits to Realistic Gender Depiction in Ads

Zach Brooke
Current average rating    
Key Takeaways

What? A study conducted by Unilever found 40% of women do not feel represented in the ads they see.

So what? Unilever will combat gender stereotyping in its advertisements.

Now what? Rethink how your brand shows gender in its marketing materials, and if those depictions accurately reflect the reality of gender. 

August 5, 2016

Policy comes after a study found 40% of women don’t relate to the women they see in advertisements

In a move that may be seen as an industry landmark, Unilever dropped one of the year’s biggest business bombshells earlier this summer when it announced it would remove stereotypes based on gender from its ads. The decision came on the heels of a global ad study that found widespread stereotypical depictions throughout the advertising world. Marketing News got in touch with Unilever executive vice president of global marketing Aline Santos by e-mail to ask what those changes would look like for Unilever as a whole, and gender-specific mega-brands like Dove and Axe in particular. 

Q: Tell me about the global ad study Unilever conducted? What were the goals and findings of this research? 

A: Unilever conducted primary and secondary research initiatives (five in total) in more than 25 markets over the past two years to ensure a deep understanding of how female identity is evolving and to take a look at the state of advertising in general in terms of portrayal of women and gender overall. Research was conducted with Pretty Little Head, The Futures Company​, Ebiquity​, Millward Brown​ and Unilever’s own internal research team. The goal of this research was to build the case for changing female and overall gender portrayals in Unilever's advertising. 

The themes explored fall under four main themes:

  • The prevalence of female stereotypes in advertising.

  • The negative impact of female stereotypes on women and girls.

  • What makes female stereotypes outdated and increasingly irrelevant.

  • Confirmation that advertising needs to move forward to maintain relevance.

Our findings uncovered 40% of women don’t relate to the women they see in adverts (generally) right now. That is an enormous number of people we as an industry could be reaching with better, more engaging, and more progressive ads, and is such a huge opportunity for Unilever and brands at large. Unilever looked at more than 1,000 ads—both our own and others across the industry, and found that 50% have elements which portray women in a stereotypical way. And by the way, the numbers weren’t that much better for men, but it was enough to tell Unilever that it’s time to make a change. The findings are being used internally to educate Unilever brand teams globally so that all can embrace why this is such an important mission for Unilever. 

Q: What does that tell you about an ad’s effectiveness if 40% of its target does not feel represented in product advertisements?

A: There is clearly a gap between the way that women see themselves in life and the way they are being portrayed in advertising.  This indicates an opportunity for us as Unilever and for the industry at large to develop advertising that resonates more strongly with the audience to deliver increased talkability and overall brand engagement with consumers. 

Q: How were women depicted in ads? 

A: Depictions vary greatly from ad to ad. However stereotypes are overly prevalent and the research indicated that women are not identifying with that they are seeing—representing a clear opportunity for creatives and marketers globally. A finding that came out of the research was that just 2% of ads globally show intelligent women. 

​​Q: What qualifies as a depiction of an intelligent woman?

A: This represents the number of advertisements that show a woman as having a multi-dimensional personality, or in a professional or skilled role. 

Q: How did female survey respondents indicate their lives are different from depictions? 

A: Again, depictions vary greatly from ad to ad. But, … 30% felt that advertising shows a woman as perceived by a man. 

Q: How would female survey respondents like to be depicted? 

A: Based on research evidence and an audit of industry advertising, there are three key areas to be watchful of, which we have used to inform our own approach: 

  • First is role, where women should more broadly represent wider achievements and aspirations beyond product-related responsibilities. 

  • Second is personality and ensuring that personalities depicted should shift to become more authentic and three-dimensional. 

  • Third is appearance, presented as enjoyable, non-critical and beyond a prescribed ideal.

Q: Can you tell me about the pledge by Keith Weed​ (Unilever’s chief marketing and communications officer) at the Cannes Lions advertising film festival to usher in a new era of portrayal?  What specifically did he pledge? 

A: Keith announced the Unstereotype initiative​ at Cannes to start a journey to remove unhelpful gender stereotypes from Unilever advertisements.

Q: How will Unilever attain the goals outlined in the pledge? 

A: Unilever has already begun the global rollout of this new approach within its internal marketing teams and partner agencies. These teams will be expected to start reviewing the creative they are developing using new guidelines.

Q: Weed was described as saying at Cannes that female portrayals in advertisements are not a moral issue, but an economic one? How so? And how do more accurate portrayals solve the economic problem? 

A: This is in fact both a moral/social issue and an economic/business issue. First, while there are great examples of brands incorporating more positive portrayals of gender in their advertising, the problem is that progress is only happening in pockets. We need the majority of advertising, especially the ones targeted at women, to be a progressive view of people’s lives and aspirations today in order to have a positive and widespread impact. 

We have been able to prove through analysis of more than 150 Unilever ads that progressive advertisements (defined as showing a new, emerging, forward-looking version of identity) have more ‘talkability’ (they’re seen as enjoyable, engaging, expressive) and therefore we can deduce that these ads are better for business. 

Q: Just 1% of the ads surveyed showed women being funny. Any plans to have more female comedic performances in advertisements? 

A: Humor is a dimension of personality that our studies found is often excluded in portrayals of women in advertising. Whether or not more female comedic performances specifically are included in our advertising will be considered dependent upon the attributes of each individual brand personality, and the creative idea itself.  

Q: What specific goals were behind the creation of Dove’s #MyBeautyMySay​ ads? How were the included individual takes on female identity determined? What’s been the response to the ad so far? 

A: Dove knows that women are constantly scrutinized about how they look. They are under pressure to “look the part,” and this can stop them from achieving their full potential. Dove’s recent global research revealed that eight out of 10 women believe every woman has something about her that is beautiful. Despite this, many women feel limited by their looks. In fact, one in two women with low body esteem admit they don’t feel confident enough to be assertive about their decisions. With the My Beauty, My Say campaign, Dove hopes to tackle this problem and inspire women to break through these restrictions by telling the stories of nine women who have successfully pushed back in the face of beauty limits. 

Seven in ten women wish that the women and girls featured in adverts, movies and on television were judged on what they do or say, rather than on their looks. This is why Dove gives real women a voice in campaigns such as My Beauty, My Say. The nine women selected to take part in the campaign film where chosen because their stories offer inspiring examples of how to overcome beauty limits. 

So far, the response has been incredibly positive with press commentary ranging from “Dove’s latest beauty video might just be our favourite yet” (Refinery29) to “My Beauty My Say will inspire you to celebrate your unique beauty” (Nylon). The featured women have received incredibly positive feedback, as exemplified by androgynous model Rain Dove taking to her Facebook page to read the comments live that were offered by her social media followers.  

Q: Regarding Axe advertisements, Weed admits Axe used gender stereotypes in the past. But it seems like they worked, correct? The product made huge profits while it was advertising itself as a key to physically attracting the opposite sex. Why walk away from that now, and why tell other advertisers not to engage in similar lines of advertising?  

A: Of all the Unilever brands, Axe has come on one of the most significant journeys. Older ads are well-known for casting women in pursuit of Axe men, and [are] fairly vacuous. We know that modern audiences are looking for an evolved depiction of gender, something more aspirational and relevant to them.

Axe’s new Find Your Magic positioning is liberating for men and women. It represents a world in which genuine connection beats conquest. Women are no longer shown as one-dimensional sexual objects in bikinis, throwing themselves uncontrollably at our guys.

Firstly, women in Axe stories are three-dimensional protagonists: She might be driving the car or teaching our guys to style a mohawk. Secondly, women in Axe stories have personalities and opinions, and these things are integral to what makes them interesting or attractive. Crucially, Axe stories represent diversity for women. Each woman is different. There is no template for an attractive woman. Axe has always been about attraction, and we haven't moved away from that. But we want to portray the genuine, relevant, modern world of attraction—the true magic that happens between two equals.

Our research has shown that developing advertisements with progressive portrayals of gender increases a brand’s talkability and the overall affinity for consumers—something all advertisers should be aiming for with their creative. 

Q. What’s next for Unilever brands’ advertisements? Any upcoming campaigns that will reflect the company’s current line of thinking regarding gender stereotypes? 

A: Many of our campaigns already showcase this commitment, but our aim is to accelerate the progress we are making. New rounds of communication development are already incorporating this new thinking.


 Sign Up For Worldview

Get the best marketing thought leadership delivered directly to your inbox!

Author Bio:

Zach Brooke
Zach Brooke is a staff writer for the American Marketing Association. He can be reached at zbrooke@ama.org.
Add A Comment :

Become a Member
Access our innovative members-only resources and tools to further your marketing practice.