Cannes Lions 2017: The Unstereotype Alliance Raises Its Flag and Mission

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Cannes Lions #Unstereotype

At the 2017 World Economic Forum, Unilever CEO Paul Polman said that “Empowering women and girls offers the single biggest opportunity for human development and economic growth.”

“It goes without saying, it’s crucial for business. The World Economic Forum’s latest Gender Gap Report notes that we may not achieve economic equality among men and women for another 170 years. That’s just not good enough. We need to lead the change in tackling unhelpful stereotypes that hold women – and men – back.”

On stage at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity on Wednesday, Unilever global chief marketing and communications officer Keith Weed followed up on that commitment by unveiling a cross-industry initiative in partnership with UN Women, Facebook and WPP to ‘unstereotype’ advertising and fight gender-biased marketing and messaging.

In promoting gender equality in its marketing and creative—and in its own workplaces—the Unstereotype Alliance expands on Unilever’s 2016 ‘Unstereotype’ campaign, which aimed to foster more progressive depictions of women in its own marketing and ad campaigns. Brands also have a responsibility for where they buy ads, Weed commented on-stage at Cannes.

For the world’s second-largest advertiser—which spends €8bn (£6.3bn) a year on its 400+ brands with messaging that toucesh the lives of millions of people on a daily basis—the ripple effect is mammoth. Unilever is treating its Unstereotype campaign as a corporate directive to positively and progressively represent both genders.

At this year’s Cannes Lions, other brands are joining the cause, with executives from Google, Mars, Facebook, Microsoft and WPP joining execs from the UN and Unilever in convening the global initiative.

“We’ve seen true progress in our industry, but it doesn’t go far enough,” Weed said.  “Our job isn’t done until we never see an ad that diminishes or limits the role of women and men in society. We want to work with our peers across the industry to develop new ways of working, to share knowledge and approaches, so that we can scale the Unstereotype commitments.”

Such an initiative is a sound business decision; progressive ads are 25% more effective and deliver better branded impact, as The Drum notes.

Speaking ahead of the Unstereotype Alliance event, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women said: “Negative, diminished conceptions of women and girls are one of the greatest barriers for gender equality and we need to tackle and change those images wherever they appear.

Advertising is a particularly powerful driver to change perceptions and impact social norms. Unilever’s research found that 40% of women surveyed don’t identify at all with the women they see in advertising and just 2% of ads show intelligent women. The company has pledged to drop all sexist stereotypes from its advertising.

Further research found women are rarely presented as having authority in ads, just 3% show them in managerial, leadership or professional roles while they are “disproportionately” represented in domestic roles.

“The time is right for us as an industry to challenge and change how we portray gender in our advertising,” said Weed.  “Our industry spends billions of dollars annually shaping perceptions and we have a responsibility to use this power in a positive manner.”

The Guardian notes, “The ad industry appears to believe that the life of a woman is dour in the extreme, with just 1% of the ads surveyed showing women being funny.”

Unilever’s Sunsilk has moved off “spin and grin” shots of stylish women swishing their hair on-screen; Lynx, known as Axe in most global markets outside the UK, has pulled back on “lad-focused” ads with attractive women lusting after users of that deodorant brand; and Knorr has embraced ‘flavor equality’ – showing through the #loveatfirsttaste campaign that food and cooking cross and trump gender.

Last year at Cannes Unilever won a coveted grand prix for an Indian campaign for tea brand Brooke Bond featuring the country’s first transgender band. Still, this effort transcends the race for awards and accolades—it marks a profound and fundamental shift in how a leading global marketer is using its platform to change behavior and advance women.

After all, women are not only Unilever’s customers, but its employees, stakeholders and a force for change in the world. Just look at the box office domination by the new Wonder Woman movie starring Gal Gadot—the world is craving strong women role models, and Unilever and its brands are only too happy to deliver them.

It won’t be easy; “men still run the world,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg pointed out, but it’s changing:

Fortunately, as Unilever EVP of global marketing Aline Santos wrote this week,

“Stereotypes are dying out. Yet as an industry, we could be doing so much more to keep up. That’s the reason you’ll hear me and my Unilever colleagues talking a lot about change in Cannes this year. Not change for change’s sake but change that is right for society and right for marketers too. 

Taking the stereotypes out of advertising makes sense for everyone. Why? Because consumers are telling us they want it. If we don’t listen, how can we expect to build meaningful relationships with them, the very people we want to buy our products and services?  Put another way, unstereotyping is as much a business imperative as it is a societal responsibility, underlined by the fact that progressive adverts have been found to be 25% more effective and deliver better branded impact.”

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