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.

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.