Unilever pledges: No more 'vacuous' women in ads

Unilever's Axe brand was among the worst offenders for female stereotypes — but it's changed its ways
Unilever's Axe brand was among the worst offenders for female stereotypes — but it's changed its ways

Under the hashtag #unstereotype, the CPG giant has committed to stamp out female stereotypes in its ads, after finding more progressive campaigns play better -- even for traditionally masculine brands like Axe

"This is not a moral issue, it's an economic issue. We will create better advertising if we create advertising that is more progressive and start challenging stereotypes," said Unilever Chief Marketing Officer Keith Weed in his keynote speech at Cannes Lions Wednesday.

At the international festival of creativity, Weed unveiled internal Unilever research that analyzes 1,000 ads from 25 different countries.

The studies found that 50% of these ads contained stereotypical portrayals of women. Just 1% conveyed women as funny, 2% showed them as intelligent, and 3% showed them as leaders.

Weed acknowledged the gender stereotyping of men in advertising but said Unilever would focus on women as its target audience is predominantly female.

The research examined Unilever's own advertising output, split into "progressive" and "normative," and found that the more progressive ads resonated better with audiences.

According to Weed, the ads had 12% greater impact, in terms of consumers actively enjoying and feeling involved with the ads.

Weed described Unilever's move toward "unstereotyping" after corralling the views of its internal marketers and agencies. #Unstereotype will be the hashtag used for sharing across social.

"We are going to start moving in this direction," he said. "First of all, we'll look at the role of women in our advertising, and we don't want women to have a secondary 'at service' [role] to product news. We want to move to women who are full, authentic and have an aspirational achieving focus."

Unilever will also challenge "vacuous, blank, agreeable and thin" personality stereotypes, instead moving to three-dimensional portrayals of women.

And finally, it will move away from one advertising view of women, moving to a more "enjoyable," non-critical reflection of women.

The retooling of Axe
Of all Unilever brands, Aline Santos, EVP global marketing at Unilever, said that the Axe line of body spray has made a "significant journey" when it comes to gender stereotypes.

"Older ads are well-known for casting women in pursuit of Axe men," Santos told Campaign, "and showcasing a one-dimensional personality." For a transition, Axe’s ‘Find Your Magic’ campaign presents a world that focuses on the attraction between two equals, Santos said. It’s a "modern, relevant, genuine world" where, according to Santos, "connection beats conquest."

This Axe commercial from 2013 highlighted the stereotypical "hot girl":

The recent ‘Find Your Magic’ spot:

Notice the difference?

Santos acknowledges that these changes are not an "overnight fix.

"Given the global cultural complexities involved, it is a process that will take time to implement across the board," she said, "We hope that other marketers will take heed of ‘unstereotype’ and help us in our mission to banish outdated gender stereotypes across their creative."

Several of Unilever’s partner agencies have already confirmed that they will be adopting the new approach. The list includes BBH, 72andSunny, JWT, DDB, MullenLowe and Ogilvy.

Shona Ghosh contributed to this report.

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