For all the progress with regards to gender equality we’ve made in recent years, gender stereotypes and bias remain deeply embedded in our culture — especially in advertisements. Now, though, a special program headed by United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) aims to be the change we want to see in the world: The Unstereotype Alliance will combat gender stereotypes in advertising by bringing together a wide array of global companies, including Johnson & Johnson, Procter & Gamble, Mattel, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft, all aiming to spread “realistic, non-biased portrayals of women and men” in their ads, according to the Independent. It's sorely, sorely needed — and it could make a massive difference in how our culture and the world view and treat gender.
The Unstereotype Alliance will be launched at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, one of the world’s biggest annual gatherings of professionals in creative communications and advertising, on Thursday. This first session will lay the groundwork of everything that’s to come — as Public Now put it, it will “set out to define priority commitments to set the vision and key strategic priorities that the Alliance will tackle.” It comes a year after Unilever first launched its Unstereotype initiative, which challenged brands to move away from stereotyped representations of gender in their advertisements; an important next step, the Alliance will continue to reach for those goals on a wider scale.
Is there something a little unsettling about feminism and equality being used to sell us stuff? I mean, yes — but to be honest, I don’t often find it as problematic as it at first seems, largely because I have no disillusions about what an ad is actually for. If I’m watching an advertisement, I know its point is to sell a product. It’s not a secret; I’m very aware that that is its primary purpose in life, and that is fine.
But — as is the case for all forms of media, whether it’s movies or TV shows or what we see on the covers of magazines — representation matters. Seeing ads featuring people who look how people actually look matters. Seeing ads that not only don’t cleave to gender stereotypes, but actively dismantle them, matters. The images we see on a daily basis shape and inform how we view the world. A 2015 study, for example found that viewing an advertisement that objectifies women for just three minutes can increase our dissatisfaction with our own bodies — an effect that, while more prevalent in women, held for women and men. And when all you see are images like that, day in, day out… it starts to weigh down on you, even if you don’t even register that you’re seeing them.
So, the fact that an ad is selling something isn’t surprising or really an issue. It’s the way that the ad goes about its business that I tend to pay attention to — and I would argue that an ad showing diverse people doing diverse things, not limited by their gender or race or sexuality or anything else, is vastly preferable to one that reinforces outdated stereotypes and harmful biases.
And that’s exactly what Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women, highlights as the driving force behind the Unstereotype Alliance. “Stereotypes reflect deep-rooted ideas of femininity and masculinity,” said Mlambo-Ngcuka according to the Independent. “Negative, diminished conceptions of women and girls are one of the greatest barriers for gender equality and we need to tackle and change those images wherever they appear. Advertising is a particularly powerful driver to change perceptions and impact social norms.”
Unilever’s global chief marketing and communications officer, Keith Weed, expressed a similar sentiment. “We’ve seen true progress in out industry, but it doesn’t go far enough,” said Weed according to marketing and advertising platform The Drum. “Our job isn’t done until we never see an ad that diminishes or limits the role of women and men in society.” Additionally, Kathleen Hall, CVP Brand, Advertising, and Research at Microsoft noted according to Public Now, “Advertising is a reflection of culture and sometimes can be ahead of the curve and help effect change.” Hear, hear.
Nor is it just women who stand to gain from the Unstereotype Alliance’s goals; people of all genders will benefit. By unnecessarily gendering everything from objects to interests, our culture frequently prescribes specific, limited roles to everyone: Women are meant to be "beautiful" and "nice" (not “bossy”); men are meant to be "strong" and "powerful" (never “feminine”); and gender nonconforming and nonbinary people are often erased entirely. “Unstereotyping” ads is an important step in dismantling these limited, culturally prescribed roles — and an important step towards making lasting change in how the world views gender.
There’s a lot of work ahead of us, of course… but I’m hopeful: For us, and for the future.