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Mary Mazzoni headshot

Ad Campaign Addresses Persistent Sexism in Google Searches

Google autocomplete provides a unique peek inside the collective consciousness. Responses are often head-scratching or even hilarious (type in the word "what," and you may receive suggested queries like "does the fox say" or "is twerking"), but a new ad campaign reveals a much darker side to the world's Google searches that points to pervasive discrimination against women.

The campaign, developed as a creative idea for UN Women by Memac Ogilvy and Mather Dubai, features portraits of women with autocomplete results for search terms like "women shouldn't" and "women need to" covering their mouths.

Based on searches dated March 9, 2013, the ads expose negative sentiments ranging from stereotyping to outright denial of women’s rights. For example, after typing in the term "women should," top responses included "stay at home" or "be in the kitchen." The term "women shouldn't" yields even more disturbing results, such as "vote," "drive" or "have rights."

“When we came across these searches, we were shocked by how negative they were and decided we had to do something with them,” Christopher Hunt, art director of the creative team, said in a press release.

Typing in similar searches with the word "men" produces very different suggestions. The term "men need to" yields responses like "feel needed" or "ejaculate," while autocomplete suggests men skip wearing shorts or flip-flops rather than avoid basic rights.

This isn't the first time Google has garnered negative attention for its autocomplete results. A French anti-discrimination NGO sued the search giant in 2012 over autocomplete's pairing of people's names with the word "Jewish," and a study performed by Lancaster University earlier this year revealed that the tool often produces racist, sexist or homophobic suggestions.

According to Google, autocomplete predictions are "a reflection of the search activity of all Web users and the content of Web pages indexed by Google." Predictions are determined algorithmically "without any human intervention," although the company applies a narrow set of removal policies for pornography, violence and hate speech.

While it may be tempting to wonder what these shocking queries say about Google, it's likely more constructive to ask what they say about us. At the very least, it seems the campaign is drawing attention to still-prevalent issues of inequality and discrimination.

The terms "women shouldn't" and "women need to" have reached peak search interest in the U.S. since the launch of the ad campaign, according to data from Google Trends, indicating millions of users are testing out the results for themselves. UN Women said it is "heartened by the initial strong reaction to the ads and hopes they will spark constructive dialogue globally."

Inspired by the ads, the UN Human Rights Office's Free & Equal campaign for LGBT equality performed similar searches including the word "gay," with equally unsettling results. The term "gays should" yielded violent responses such as "be killed" and "be put to death," while typing in "gays need to" produced suggested queries like "stop whining" and "shut up."

An uptick in search volume for terms mentioned in the ads, coupled with the appearance of similar campaigns, indicates the conversation is picking up steam around the Web - even if it brings up results we may not want to see.

“The ads are shocking because they show just how far we still have to go to achieve gender equality," said Kareem Shuhaibar, a copywriter on the UN Women project. "They are a wake up call, and we hope that the message will travel far."

Image credits: Ad series photographs courtesy of UN Women

Based in Philadelphia, Mary Mazzoni is a freelance journalist who frequently writes about sustainability, corporate social responsibility and clean tech. Mary also contributes to Earth911; her work has appeared on the Huffington PostSustainable Brands and The Daily Meal. You can follow her on Twitter @mary_mazzoni.

Mary Mazzoni headshotMary Mazzoni

Mary Mazzoni has reported on sustainability in business for over a decade and now serves as managing editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of brands and organizations on sustainability storytelling. Along with 3p, Mary's recent work can be found in publications like Conscious Company, Salon and Vice's Motherboard. She also works with nonprofits on media projects, including the women's entrepreneurship coaching organization Street Business School. She is an alumna of Temple University in Philadelphia and lives in the city with her partner and two spoiled dogs. 

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