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Leon Kaye headshot

Unilever Moves Away from Sexist Advertising

By Leon Kaye

For many women, advertising is still very much a boy’s world, as many consider both print and broadcast ads overladen with stereotypes. Whether they are shown enduring solitary confinement in the kitchen, becoming ecstatic at the sight of a man, or having a body shape only possible thanks to pixelation or airbrushing, many ads for products are still, at a minimum, annoying — or at most, sexist.

To that end, one of the world’s largest consumer goods companies says it will do its part to eliminate gender stereotypes from its advertising. And it's goading competitors and other companies outside its industry to do the same.

According to a recent blog post from one of its global marketing executives, Unilever has both listened to consumers and evaluated how it could revamp its advertising campaigns so that they will resonate better with the public. The company claims it has asked all of its brands to wean themselves away from the typical gender stereotypes, and find new ways to showcase the diversity in people’s appearance, personality and gender roles.

This is a tall order for Unilever, which across its 400 global brands sells billions of products daily. As the BBC reports, the company spends over $8.3 billion annually on advertising. Many of these brands are in countries whose ideas about gender roles vastly differ from the countries lined up on both sides of the North Atlantic Ocean. And this effort will be far more complicated than issuing directives to every one of Unilever’s regional offices.

Yet considering Unilever’s size, this could also lead to a huge disruption within the worldwide advertising industry. Most companies outsource, or at least retain in an advisory role, their advertising and marketing campaigns to external firms — just as they do with other services such as public relations or human resources.

Unilever, however, is already making headway on this front with new advertising campaigns for its Axe brand of deodorants and Lynx body spray; the company claims it has received plaudits for its acceptance of men’s individuality instead of the traditional “macho” portrayal of men in such ads.

Indeed, the media is fragmented in more mature markets such as North America, where both television and print have lost eyeballs to laptops and, even more so, to smartphones. In other markets, such as Korea and India, however, television is still hanging on — which means if Unilever truly commits to how it views, designs and disburses advertising, more women (and men) could actually feel empowered and liberated from conventional norms.

Analysts love to talk about “disruptions” in the marketplace. And at this point, it is too early to gauge whether Unilever’s announcement can genuinely change the advertising industry so that it is more approachable to consumers. But if Unilever’s rethink clicks with consumers — as measured by increased sales figures — watch for its competitors and companies in other sectors to follow. Businesses will find yet another way to remain profitable while becoming even more socially responsible -- and that benefits and frees us all.

Image credit: Cola Cola/WikiCommons

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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