Q+A: AFE CEO Stephen Quinn on unconscious bias in advertising

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The #SeeHer initiative will guide marketers in the creation of positive portraits of women

Today, 55% of adults believe that women are portrayed negatively in the media, according to new research from the Association of National Advertisers Alliance for Family Entertainment (AFE).

The study, which studied the representation of women in the media and the impact it has on consumer behavior, also found that if women are more accurately portrayed, consumers’ intent to purchase could increase by more than 30%.

The AFE hopes statistics such as these will compel marketers and their agency partners to take a closer look at how they are representing women in their advertising. The full results of the study will be released later this month.

To change those representations, the AFE in June launched the #SeeHer campaign at the United State of Women Summit at the White House.

By 2020, the 100th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment that gave women the right to vote, the AFE hopes to see more than a 20% increase in the accurate portrayal of girls and women in advertising, media and programming.

In order to reach that goal, the AFE will advise marketers and their agencies on how to create more accurate ads and provide them with toolkits to help guide them. The kits will provide research and scorecards to help them evaluate their work. A #SeeHer website will provide best-in-class examples and research partners ABX and Tivo will regularly publish top-scoring ads and programs.

The AFE is a coalition of more than 500 family brands, including the Coca-Cola Company, Procter & Gamble, Walmart and Post Foods. Together, the members represent more than $20 billion in ad spend for US TV, according to organization.

"We know that media has a really big impact on how people see themselves," said Stephen Quinn, CEO of AFE. "The ‘See Her’ name came from the insight: If she can see her, she can be her."

Campaign US spoke with Quinn to discuss #SeeHer and why it’s in marketers’ best interest to change.

How can AFE make a difference?
The group represents, by far, the biggest advertisers in America. There’s a very significant spend by those marketers. They can get rid of the bias in their own advertising, but also their advertising supports a huge portion of the content that’s available in digital form as well as on television. We see AFE being the change agent.

How are women not accurately reflected in media today?
Women are often absent. For example, in movies today, one out of four roles are women and one out of eight roles involve speaking. We need to show the diversity of roles women can play.

And the representation is really narrow compared to the reality, especially when it comes to STEM fields, and that’s the part that the White House is especially interested in. They have a mandate to increase the participation of women in technology. When they looked into why women didn’t apply to these jobs, they discovered the media either discouraged or were not encouraging girls to get jobs in the tech sector.

Why should advertisers make a concerted effort to portray women accurately?
These are all really large advertisers, and there’s a lot of transparency these days. They are all working on getting women into more executive roles. What we’re saying is that how you portray women in your own content ties to all those efforts as well.

Marketers have to realize just how important women are for the economy. 85% of consumer purchases are directly made by women or heavily influenced by women, and in some categories like food, it’s 93%. A lot of services it’s in the '90s, healthcare it’s in the '80s. It’s really important that they get this right — it affects how effective the pitch is to those people.  

Which age demographic is the most dissatisfied with the way women are portrayed right now?
Millennial consumers are the most dissatisfied in general, and they projected that they will be more dissatisfied five years from now if, in fact, there wasn’t significant change taking place.  

How hard will this initiative be for brands to follow?
We’re giving agencies a toolbox of a briefing approach that they could use to help to eliminate these biases. When it comes to the content programs’ support, we’ve already tested about 300 TV programs, so marketers will be able to go through a list of those that are doing the best job, and they can move their advertising to those shows.

Our idea is to highlight the people that are making the most progress or doing the best work, and not to spend much time on vilifying those that do not.

Which brands have done a good job?
I think Unilever has been a real leader in this area for a number of years. What they’ve done recently is they’ve made it a much more company wide effort, not just with their Dove brand. They’ve provided a lot of leadership within the AFE. For them this really aligns with what they are already doing.

Since the announcement, how many AFE brands have agreed to join this initiative?
We had 50 of these companies at the White House and I believe just about every one of them has committed to this program. Our expectation is that one year from now there will be a significant improvement. I can tell you that being involved with the AFE for the better part of a decade that this was the most significant engagement we’ve seen from the marketing community.


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