Business

Unilever to use 'less sexist' ads

Axe advert new Image copyright Unilever
Image caption Around 40% of women say they do not identify at all with the women they see in advertising, Unilever found

Adverts showing women unable to resist the lure of chocolate, slaving in the kitchen and going giggly at the sight of a man will be no more if consumer goods giant Unilever has its way.

The firm, behind more than 400 brands from Ben & Jerry's ice-cream to Dove soap, has pledged to remove sexist stereotypes from its own ads and called on rivals to follow suit.

Some 40% of women did not identify with their portrayal in adverts, it said.

The firm spends £6bn a year on adverts.

The figure makes it the second-biggest advertiser globally and chief marketing officer Keith Weed told the BBC this gave it a responsibility to push the change "on a broader society level".

He said the campaign, dubbed Unstereotype, was the culmination of two years of research.

This uncovered some "extraordinary things", including that women were largely portrayed in a secondary or service role, with just 3% of ads featuring women in managerial or professional roles.

Other findings revealed almost all women (90%) felt they were presented as sex symbols and almost a third (30%) said adverts showed women as perceived by a man.

"If we looked at role, personality and appearance, then they weren't representing women as they are today. Some of the imagery might have been current years ago, but it certainly wasn't today," said Mr Weed.

Unilever found half of the ads it analysed stereotyped both men and women, but initially, Mr Weed said, the firm planned to focus its efforts on a more realistic portrayal of women, at whom the majority of its products are targeted.

Image copyright Unilever
Image caption Unilever's Knorr advert previously showed a mother and daughter in the kitchen
Image copyright Unilever
Image caption The new one shows a father and son cooking

It has already started to change some of its adverts, with its stock cube Knorr campaign featuring men, rather than women, in the kitchen and its campaign for deodorant brand Lynx, known as Axe outside the UK, moving away from the stereotypical portrayal of a woman lusting after a man.

The firm was one of the first to use "real" women in its Dove brand campaign more than a decade ago, which dramatically boosted sales by "billions of euros", and Mr Weed said this had given it early evidence of the business case for the change.

Christian Eichert, a marketing researcher at Cass Business School, said managing to shift its advertising was "complicated" for a global brand such as Unilever, which was trying to cater to a liberal audience while not alienating its conservative one.

He said humour and putting men and women on an equal footing was key.

"It's very difficult to pitch these progressive narratives while on the other hand claiming authenticity. It's empowering if [the adverts] allow consumers to play with boundaries without being perceived as not 'man enough' or 'not female enough'.

"In the end, the boy gets the girl. It's pretty much the same outcome, it's just the path that's changing," he said.

Image caption This Girl Can campaign was deemed a success

Many other firms from M&S to Debenhams have employed similar strategies, using more realistic role models in an attempt to boost sales.

Sport England's campaign called This Girl Can, aimed at helping encourage more women to take up exercise and featuring women of all shapes and sizes taking part in a variety of sports, was particularly successful, leading to 2.8 million 14-40 year old women saying they had done some or more activity as a result.

And increasingly there are signs that people are less willing to put up with traditional stereotypes.

An advert by weight loss shake firm Protein World last summer featuring a bikini-clad model and asking "Are you beach body ready?" sparked a huge backlash over alleged "body-shaming", including a protest in London's Hyde Park and a petition on Change.org that attracted more than 71,000 signatures.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Protein World's advert last summer sparked a huge backlash

Earlier this month the UK advertising watchdog launched a consultation on gender stereotyping in adverts to see if a change in rules was necessary.

The Advertising Standards Authority said it would consider a range of issues including the mocking of men and women in ads where they took on roles against stereotype and the presentation of an idealised or unrealistic body image.

"We're serious about making sure we're alive to changing attitudes and behaviours," said Guy Parker, chief executive of the ASA.

Heather Andrew, chief executive of Neuro-Insight, a firm which uses brain imaging to do market research, said social media had influenced advertising.

"The long-term rules of the advertising game have shifted. Social media uses real life situations and authentic portrayals do a lot better than stereotypes."

Ms Andrew said in the end the important thing was that firms were open-minded.

"In some circumstances, it's realistic to show mum cooking dinner. It's about seeking to portray the reality people see. Showing people doing normal things doesn't preclude using people in different ways."

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