Q&A: Unilever’s Global Marketing Chief on Busting Gender Stereotypes in Advertising

#Unstereotype initiative aims to level playing field

Brands are increasingly addressing the issue of gender stereotypes. In June, Unilever launched #Unstereotype, an initiative that aims to level the playing field in terms of how gender is portrayed in advertising. Unilever's past efforts in that regard include the long-running Dove "Real Beauty" campaign and Axe's "Find Your Magic" campaign, which helped the brand ditch its hypersexualized frat-boy persona in favor of more accurate portrayals of men. 

Adweek caught up with Aline Santos, evp of global marketing for Unilever, at the ANA Masters of Marketing conference in Orlando, Fla., last week to talk about how Unilever is putting its plans into action.

Adweek: How does Unilever's #Unstereotype initiative aim to break gender stereotypes?
Aline Santos: In the last two years, we've done studies on how people are portrayed in advertising and how those portrayals were connecting, or not, with our consumers. We found that across many different industries, there's a big gap between what the industry is saying and how consumers are living. We found that 40 percent of consumers aren't relating to advertising in the broader industry. It's a very serious number.

One of the things we've found is that gender has evolved, but we still look at gender in a stereotyped way, which creates a big distance between us and consumers. We felt that it's time for us to correct that and be much closer to the reality of gender and people today. We want to create an environment where our advertising is going to be progressive and inspiring. We want to focus on people, not just women. We believe that if we want to unstereotype people, we can't unstereotype women by creating a stereotype for men.

What's your advice for other marketers in "unstereotyping" their ads?
When you're creating a new piece of content, you have to think about the role of the main character. If she's a woman, what is she doing? Only 3 percent of ads around the world show women in leadership roles. You have to think twice about the role your main character has to play. With Dove's "Real Beauty," it's about talking about how beauty becomes a source of self-expression, not a source of anxiety.

Talk about how Axe has helped bust gender stereotypes with its new positioning.
Axe is a brilliant example. It's about understanding people in a better way. The stereotype of manhood that we had been portraying for years isn't relevant anymore. Not only was it not relevant, but it wasn't right. "Find Your Magic" and the way they put it together with different personalities is one of the best examples of unstereotyping. The response from consumers was great. They really identified with it.

What are the biggest challenges in breaking gender stereotypes?
The biggest challenge is that people get in automatic mode [when creating ads]. They don't think about it—they just appeal to stereotypes. The second is if you use stereotypes, it's going to be easier, so you have to get away from that.

Also, a diverse culture at brands and agencies is a fundamental element to win in the marketplace. It's not a moral case, it's a business case. You have to have a more diverse set of leaders to come up with a diverse set of ideas.