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Why Unilever thinks a DNA test can help marketers banish stereotypes from ads


By Rebecca Stewart, Trends Editor

June 17, 2019 | 4 min read

Unilever is offering its marketers and agency partners the chance to undergo DNA profiling and get a better understanding of their own diversity as part of its mission to banish stereotypes from its ads.

Dove's Real Beauty Pledge 2017 campaign

The option to take part in the DNA tests will be rolled out across the wider business

Following a unique experiment with University College London (UCL), the Dove owner claims that letting execs discover their own genetic makeup and ancestry in this way results in a reduction in “stereotypical thinking” and unconscious bias.

Aline Santos, the company's executive vice-president of global marketing and chief diversity and inclusion officer, told The Drum the test group was "overwhelmed" by the results and said the option to take part would be rolled out across its entire in-house marketing team as well as its significant agency roster.

As part of its wider ‘Unstereotype’ initiative (which aims to banish biases related to gender, background, age or orientation from its advertising), the FMCG giant partnered with UCL to invite 63 staff and agency execs from London, Rotterdam and New York to submit their DNA for analysis.

The goal was to find out whether a deeper understanding of heritage had any impact on their creative thinking and challenge them to think about their own sense of identity.

Marketers who took part represented the likes of Dove, Vaseline, Cif and Hellman’s, while agencies included MullenLowe and Ogilvy.

DNA data was anonymous to Unilever, which worked with an external partner to collect it.

After learning their results the participants underwent a workshop with UCL professors focused on how to unlearn stereotypical thought patterns. They were then tested on their likelihood to stereotype people via a series of images.

After the process, scientists noted a "35% reduction in stereotypical thinking" and a "27% increase in original thinking".

“When we did this test people were so surprised about the results,” explained Santos.

“Some people didn’t realise they had a geographic heritage that was coming from Asia or Africa, or that they had Jewish roots. When people are surprised or get to know something new about themselves that’s the best moment for them to learn about others and understand that they should be conscious about not stereotyping people.”

Santos said it was important that Unilever’s agencies took part in the process so they could “walk the walk together”, adding that she believed the day-long workshops had actually helped agency teams build stronger partnerships with internal Unilever marketers.

The exec – who is currently the most senior marketer at Unilever following the departure of longstanding chief marketing officer Keith Weed – also said she was open to sharing the learnings of this experiment with competitors.

“Hopefully we will share this with other brands. We’re keen to share any progress in this area with external people. We decided a long time ago that we don’t want to compete [on diversity], the more we can help we will.”

Unilever's announcement coincided with the start of Cannes Lions, which the FMCG brand has used as launchpad for its 'Unstereotype' programme since it was first unveiled as a gender-focused initiative in 2016.

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