New Alliance Takes Aim at Sexist Ads

UN Women and Unilever have launched the Unstereotype Alliance—an initiative to drive away harmful gender stereotypes and sexism from large industry advertisements.

from a Carl’s Jr. ad

Earlier this month, Under-Secretary General of the United Nations and Executive director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka gathered some of the top industry leaders at the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity to address gender equality and women’s representation in advertisements. The change has already begun, with companies such as Audi, Axe, Dove and Always changing the way they represent women in their advertisements and brands as unlikely as Carls Jr.—known for their continuously ludicrous ads showing women in bikinis devouring hamburgers—hopping on the bandwagon.

“There has been a lot of progress in the industry on this issue, but not enough,” Unilever’s chief marketing and communications officer Keith Weed explained in a press statement. “The Unstereotype Alliance is our path to a global ambition, not just for Unilever brands, but for the larger industry to advance advertising away from stereotypical representations of gender. Our job isn’t done until we no longer see an ad that diminishes or limits the role of women and men in this society.”

Mlambo-Ngcuka has been working to recognize industry leaders who have been initiating change from the inside. In a statement, she referenced the hard evidence that connects shifting attitudes towards gender representation in the media, noting that efforts like the Unstereotype Alliance “will fuel political will and financial muscle for change.” If smaller companies see these strategies working for more prominent industry competitors, change is more likely to be ignited across the board.

“These persistent images feed into cultural norms and are a serious barrier for gender equality,” Mlambo-Ngcuka said in a press release. “We need to recognize and change them. I call on leaders in the industry to reflect critically on the role they play in this, examine their portfolios with this specifically in view, collectively establish metrics and together, drive change.”

Sexism has long been a cornerstone of the advertising industry, and feminists have been working to spark change on how women are depicted in media for decades. The very first issue of Ms., published in July 1972, featured a “No Comment” section spotlighting sexist ads—a recurring feature which remains in print to this day. Ms. readers, who often follow-up with the creators of the ads featured in protest, have seen results—magazines have removed a number of objectifying advertisements from their pages as a result.

There is still far to go. Only 3 percent of women in advertisements are featured in a managerial positions, and a recent study found that women remain underrepresented in advertisements—and are typically depicted in the kitchen wearing revealing clothing when they are included.

When adults and children are exposed to upwards of 5,000 advertisements per day, it’s undeniable that the imagery they encounter will shape their beliefs—and our society’s values. Young girls grow up seeing images that glorify violence against women, put forward unrealistic beauty standards and sexualize women’s bodies—and it impacts their own sense of self. Pushing back on sexist ads is a pivotal part of fighting for cultural change.

This fight is far from over—and feminists must continue to protest sexism in advertising and all other forms of media. Until we can see change, we’re far from the sea change we’re working toward.

Joelle Rosenberg is an Editorial Intern at Ms. and a student at Santa Monica College studying Sociology and Women’s studies. She has worked as a volunteer for Planned Parenthood and dedicated much time and effort into raising awareness about rape culture and sexual assault in colleges around the United Sates. She enjoys outdoor activities such as backpacking, hiking and rock climbing, as well as exploring L.A.’s food scene and spending time with her cats. You can find her on Facebook or Instagram

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  1. Great article! But I’m skeptical at seeing Unilever taking a lead role in this – sure, they have done great work with their Dove campaigns, but their Axe ads have been the worst sexist crap imaginable. Are they as eager to examine themselves as they are eager to examine others?

  2. Daniel Sebold says:

    I can’t seem to escape it, no matter what server I use, but it seems worse than ever the T@A sexism. MSNBC will come up and there will be this horrid article as if written by some stupid kid still in high school about how women go to the beach to show off at men. The result of this constant inundation of female nudity in oftentimes incongruous settings–you can be watching a Bruno Mars video going along okay, then be clobbered with four g strung bums, then the video goes on as if nothing happened. Perhaps if Bruno were wearing a Speedo or a g string it would makes sense, but male nudity has been taboo since the late eighties. Exactly who decides these things–perhaps the man behind the curtain in the Wizard Of Oz, but someone decided that men had to be covered and then bombarded with degrading images of nude women. The result is that we men don’t care anymore. You go to a swimming pool and the women are on one side showing their butts, and the men are on the other side in their baggy swimming suits with scruffy unshaven faces. Swimming pools in the west are apartheid sexism, the two genders polarized. The men tired of it have gone MGTOW. Maybe I am wrong, but this is what I see. Just go to the beach and start counting the number of women in bummny bikinis and g strings and the number of men in knee length and calf length suits. Speedoes are unheard of now. There is far less sexism in the beach attire in the pre feminist 1960 movie Where The Boys Are than what you see today. Both genders were sexy back then, not just one.
    We have gone backwards, I don’t blame feminism. I think the country is going down.

  3. “No Comment” was revolutionary in its time – so sad that it is STILL so. Important that she was at Cannes – I hope it got good press coverage. Important work!

  4. All well and good, but what about the male stereotypes? Men are constantly seen as idiots, the butt of women’s jokes, they are often subjected to violence in advertising, both real-simulated and cartoon-like violence, and are usually seen as disposable appendages.

    Women often portrayed as home-makers and in the kitchen? Guess what – most women in those situations CHOOSE to be home-makers, so who TF else will advertisers pitch their products at?

    It would be nice just for once to see an equal approach to cultural bias reported in Ms. Magazine, rather than the incessant pro-fem, anti-male dogma that just drips off its pages.

  5. Elline Lipkin says:

    Agree! Hearing that Unilever is behind this makes me wonder if it’s a token gesture to look like they’re doing advocacy work. If they pull their horrible ads entirely that will be the proof!

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