The Unstereotype Alliance: Industry leaders on need for evolved portrayal of women in ads

A panel of the industry's brightest female minds discusses why advertising today needs to realistically reflect the changes in the world and challenge stereotypes

e4m by Misbaah Mansuri
Published: Mar 31, 2021 8:54 AM  | 6 min read

Gender-bias in advertising has encouraged discrimination based on age, ethnicity, ability, and sexual orientation. Harmful stereotypes in advertising may have remained unchallenged for years. But has the advertising industry been able to wholly and authentically reflect the diversity of the world we live in?

The Unstereotype Alliance, an initiative by UN Women which seeks to eliminate harmful gender stereotypes from advertising hosted a panel with founding members  - Unilever, Diageo, WPP, Publicis Groupe, Havas Group, Advertising Standards Council of India, Advertising Agencies Association of India, The Advertising Club, UNICEF & Samhita (with support from the WeEmpowerAsia programme by the European Union) discussing the same.

Manisha Kapoor, Secretary-General, ASCI, opined that one of the things we need to keep in mind is that advertisers also wish to be responsible and progressive in their depictions, however, gender is a complex subject. “The changes in the gender narrative are not linear. They are very, very diverse. They are very complex. Also, there are many Indias at the same time that exists simultaneously. So how do we help advertisers also navigate the gender space and what is understood through gender? We have to remember that all of us are equally a part of the society and we have our own prejudices and our own biases and our own conditioning that we need to kind of question,” Kapoor remarked.

Kapoor added that one of the things we need to remember is that different companies have their own internal agendas and many of them are debating these very issues internally. “It is collective action which actually delivers impact and even in self-regulation, which is what ASCI stands for. It's not enough for one company or two companies to be responsible; it's when the industry demonstrates the responsibility collectively. I think the same is the case with gender depiction and as an industry, we need to take steps forward together,” she said.

Priya Nair, Exec Director, Beauty & Personal Care, Hindustan Unilever Ltd, a company that has been championing the cause and has also worked towards eliminating the word ‘normal’ from advertising said a lot of consumers say they can't identify with these women in the advertising.

“It's very critical for advertisers today to show women in a more inclusive way. How come advertising doesn't show enough women who are, working, enough women who are funny, enough women who are intelligent? Because when I link to all the women on this panel we would say we are all of that. I think that's the most compelling argument of it all,” she remarked.

Nair contended that actions speak very loudly and that when you have a few leading-edge pieces of work that go out into the industry and it will start to show the difference.

Meanwhile, Anupriya Acharya, CEO, Publicis Groupe, South Asia said that advertising has always been a huge force for social change: She shared how the ad agency has been working towards reflecting an inclusive world through their many recent ads.

“There is both a push and pull, involved in any movement. As a leading ad company, we have been advising our clients time and again and have been creating work that challenges stereotypes.

"A recent Whisper campaign I think designed by Leo Burnett we did is all about how it is okay for good girls to sit improperly, and have attempted to eliminate this whole stereotype about how women should dress, how women should talk, how women should sit and all of that. We did another interesting piece on Pampers which is about inclusive parenting. So advertising has a huge role to play and will be instrumental towards the reflection of an inclusive world,” said Acharya.

Nishtha Satyam, Deputy Representative in India for UN Women, also spoke of how advertising needs to realistically reflect the changes in the world.

“Every time I've seen the ad for a sanitary napkin. I'm just thinking to myself, I don't want to wear white clothes and skip and touch rainbows on a period day; it is just something that one wouldn't do. And then you wonder whether it's something that women have written or is that a man's perception of women. So I think it's been a conversation in my mind through a couple of years back and I hope I see the change in ads,” remarked Satyam.

Meanwhile, Apoorva Bapna, Chief Culture Officer, WPP spoke of how the ad giant walks the talk and is increasingly working towards inclusivity.

“We have a local council that is being set up at an agency level to drive to the diversity and inclusion agenda. We have committed $30 million to funding inclusion programs within WPP to support external organizations across the globe,” said Bapna. She asserted that statistically, it's shown that D&I (diversity and inclusion) can actually create a real impact and can be a winning solution for the organizations if they want to have sustainable growth. “The support doesn't just extend to financial performance. It also is proven that companies with more diverse management teams report almost 60% increase in their creativity, innovation and openness,” she said.

Bapna continued, “We also remain a committed signatory to the women's empowerment principles- a guide for businesses and how to empower women in the workplace marketplace and community, and of course, you know, we've been partnering with UN Women, and Unstereotype Alliance, which was a significant beneficiary of the work that we do globally and of course now in the member. Not just within our people but also to the community and the clients we work with the world's largest marketing and advertising networks and we have a responsibility to change how women are seen and valued and this is fundamental to creating a more gender-equal world right and partnering with clients to produce high impact.”

Furthermore, Bapna revealed that the company has partnered with tech giant Google for a program called “I'm remarkable.” “India is one of the few countries across the globe who signed up for the program. We see that women don't often talk about their achievements openly because culturally, it is something that's not very acceptable. We want to break that stereotype and let women come out and talk about achievements, “ she shared.

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