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The world’s second-largest advertiser is hoping to “lead” positive social change with the new move.

Recently at the Cannes Lions festival in France, Unilever made a bold announcement that it would end the stereotyping of women in its ads and focus on putting forth more excellent and nuanced portrayals of gender.

Unilever is the second largest advertiser in the world, with more than 400 brands, including popular consumer product goods (CPG) Dove, Axe, Knorr, and Surf, and spends almost $9.5 billion on advertising annually, so the announcement and the change can have a real impact.

“We understand that by using our influence responsibly, we can contribute to positive cultural change as well as making better connections with people through our advertising,” Aline Santos, executive vice president of global marketing for Unilever, said in a statement. “That’s why we’ve asked every one of our brands to challenge itself to move away from unhelpful stereotypical portrayals of gender, especially for women, and to deliver fresh campaigns that are more relevant to today’s consumer.

The announcement was accompanied by the launch of the company’s #UNSTEREOTYPE campaign, which is aimed at changing how people see gender. While the move has been couched regarding social responsibility, it comes after two years of studies Unilever has conducted on female representation in advertising, much of which indicated that there are a brand and advertising value gain to be had in showing more progressive portrayals of women.

“From all the research, and there’s a lot, it’s showing significant differences regarding impact, talkability, and effectiveness,” Santos told AdNews at Cannes. “Engagement and awareness go through the roof when there is a more progressive portrayal of women in ads. It’s not only a moral and social issue it’s a business issue, so it’s going to be a fantastic vehicle for us to do good and to do good business as well.”

According to the Unilever research, when ads are seen as more “progressive” they deliver a 12 percent uplift in brand perception. The studies gave advertising an inferior grade for female representations overall, with 40 percent of women saying they don’t identify with the women they see in ads. Additionally, Unilever found that 50 percent of ads featured “stereotypical” representations of women and only 2 percent featured women in managerial or leadership roles, and only 1 percent of ads showed women being funny.

The company has already made shifts in this direction with some of its brands. As early as 2004, the company launched Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” which was a global effort to celebrate the diversity of women’s bodies and defy the traditional advertising depiction of women. However, at the same time, the company received flack for many of its other brands using more stereotypical representations of women, notably Axe.

Now, Unilever will have all its brands take a more progressive approach to women in their ads. Axe’s latest campaign “Find Your Magic” has moved the name away from presenting itself as a tool to win the affection of women and shows it can help in the development of more modern, genuine attraction, where two equals find each other.

Under the new mandate, the company is focusing on three main areas: roles, personality, and appearance. According to Santos, “We want to portray women in roles that relate to their aspirations and broader achievements rather than just their responsibilities. We don’t want to show women as just supporting our product or supporting someone else. That isn’t what women are, and it isn’t how women see themselves.”

The ad industry has been quick to rally to the cause, and many of Unilever’s partner agencies, including BBD, JWT, MullenLowe, Ogilvy, and DDB, have announced that they are excited to adopt the company’s new approach.

Traditionally, advertising has used stereotypes to market to consumers. While it is a bold and encouraging move by Unilever to try and use the power of advertising to “change” stereotypes, it is a move that is backed by research and economics and speaks most to the fact that the public has already shifted in its view of women, and it is time for the ad industry to catch up. Unilever is on track, now other big brands and advertisers will likely follow suit.

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