Aline Santos: ASA gender ruling debate shows we must unite to 'unstereotype' advertising

Ads from Philadelphia and Buxton, were the first to fall foul of the watchdog's new guidelines around perpetuating gender stereo / Philadelphia - YouTube

The ASA’s decision to ban two ads in the UK for perpetuating gender stereotypes has caused much debate in the industry. It has sparked calls for a clearer definition of what is “harmful” and questions about whether the new rules “have gone too far.”

The ads from Philadelphia and Buxton, were the first to fall foul of the watchdog's new guidelines around perpetuating gender stereotypes, were banned for featuring "bumbling" dads and "passive" women.

Any significant changes that challenge the status quo will take more time, more examples, and more debate to get to a place where we can agree on a new ‘normal’. The important thing is that we are having a conversation about what unstereotypical advertising is and can be, and that we keep improving the quality of our advertising

Because we know unstereotypical, progressive advertising is the right thing to do. As a member of the UN Women-led Unstereotype Alliance, Unilever has committed to testing our ads to check the presence of stereotypes.

We’ve tested more than 1,500 ads covering hundreds of Unilever brands in over 50 markets. The latest data from Kantar shows that progressive advertising creates 37% more branded impact and 28% increase in purchase intent. There is a 35% increase in enjoyment of ads, a 30% increase in credibility. Reducing stereotypes in advertising is good for people, good for society and good for business.

But the real questions we must all be asking ourselves is how, despite good intentions, are negative stereotypes still making their way into our ads and what can we do to stop them?

The debate around the ASA’s decision highlights this isn’t a clear-cut topic.

Stereotypes and the degree to which they can cause harm differs from country to country and even differ from group to group within the same society. So, what can we do to avoid stereotypical work?

1. To ensure our advertising represents the whole truth of the people it reaches, we need a deep understanding of what these stereotypes are, so we can make active choices and creative decisions to break them through exciting, emotional impactful ads that resonate with our consumers.

2.We need to measure what we treasure. The Unstereotype Alliance convened by UN Women, has created a free measurement tool that allows marketers worldwide to check for gendered stereotypes that may unintentionally work their way into ads. The tool, called the Unstereotype Metric, addresses how both male and female characters are represented in ads, with the goal of ensuring that they are portrayed as positive role models to all audiences

3. Let’s recognise that we all stereotype, it’s the way our brains our wired to help us make sense of the world. Unconscious bias training can help us to rethink these thought patterns and allow us to see people and the audiences we serve beyond the limitations of a negative stereotype.

We partnered with University College London earlier this year for a first of its kind experiment in marketing science. We found that greater insight into our origins, coupled with an immersive workshop on behavioural change, can help us to broaden the way we see ourselves, challenging our view of the world and the people in it.

The results showed a 35% reduction in stereotypical thinking and a significant change in original thinking. I would encourage all marketers to try bold new ways to shake up how they go about creating the very best, most progressive adverts possible.

4. We need to address diversity and inclusion in our creative supply chains, from agency talent including creative directors and planners through to filmmakers and photographers.

At Unilever, we are on a journey and have been tracking the number of female directors and photographers that are winning our 3-way bids. For example, in the US were tracking above industry standards at 35% for the last 12 months.

But this doesn’t go far enough, and we will continue to champion amazing female talent through our Unilever Global Advertising Production Roster, which is currently at 726 females from 67 countries and through initiatives such as Project #ShowUs that support female photographers.

5. The conversation needs to evolve beyond gender alone. We need to address intersectionality in our advertising by recognising that people's identities and the stereotypes they face are shaped by multiple factors, including age, race, ethnicity, ability and sexual orientation.

Finally, I hope moments like this don’t divide our industry but encourage us to work together to help make ads that are creative, bold, effective and that have a positive impact on society.

Aline Santos is executive vice-president of global marketing and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Unilever. She tweets @alinecsantos

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