Gender stereotyping is about people not just women

The representation of gender is advertising needs to move on from a focus on ‘objectifying women’ to thinking about people as a whole.


Unilever launched an initiative to break gender stereotypes in its advertising in Cannes this year but the scheme goes beyond just the portrayal of women according to Aline Santos, its global marketing boss.

Speaking on a panel at the Festival of Marketing today (5 October), Santos said: “Although the biggest gap in terms of what we are depicting in advertising today is towards women, the whole movement we are creating at Unilever is not only about women.”

“If we unstereotype women we might be stereotyping men, and that is something we don’t want to do. It’s about unstereotyping people [and] not just defining [them] by gender.”

Aline Santos, SVP, global marketing, Unilever

Santos was joined on the panel, presented by Marketing Week editor Russell Parsons, by author and broadcaster Stephen Bayley; strategy director at the Advertising Association Karen Fraser; and Kate Ward, vice-president of international at women-focused digital media company, Refinery29.

“It’s interesting how there is a gender bias displayed in this whole discussion that always tends to become about the objectification of women,” said Bayley.

He told delegates that it’s important to look at history too and that the “idea of the objectification of women was done by women”. Harking back to the 1950s, Bayley spoke of the famous advertising copywriter for Clairol, Shirley Polykoff, who came up with the line ‘If I have one life, let me live it as a blonde’.

He said: “I don’t want to see a world leeched of the romance, colour and gradience of sexual gender distinctions.” But he does want to see the end of stereotyping which he described as “boring and lazy”.

Despite this there are organisations that are looking into how gender is portrayed from many angles. Advertising thinktank Credos has looked at how young men view body image. They found that over half thought body image and self-esteem was a gender neutral issue and also found it “incredibly difficult” to talk to people, each other, teachers or parents about the subject.

Read More: Marketing is responsible for creating body issues among boys, study finds

Fraser at Credos said: “It’s really important not to make suppositions about men or women. [Young men] put advertising third on the list of how they think about themselves. It’s incredibly important to recognise the influence that advertising can have on young people. Misrepresentation limits relevance, which is what we are all after.”

“This isn’t a nice-to-have,” warned Ward at Refinery29. She lamented that the younger generation are now demanding brands provide a positive representation of women. She told the audience that everyone references the objectification of women but what she’s interested in is the representation of women.

Stereotyping will still exist in the future

“Stereotyping will always be around,” said Fraser and told delegates “there is work to do”. But Bayley believes that the products that are becoming the most desirable – technology such as laptops, phones and driverless cars – are gender free.

He said: “We are all scrabbling to [get] the same status symbols – the most desired objects of recent years are gender free objects, that is an extraordinary change to be happening now.”

It’s not just about the product, however. Santos believes the future also lies in the people creating the adverts and the need to capture consumers’ attention and tell a story in five seconds.

She said: “I talk to creative people and using stereotypes is sometimes helpful because it’s a short cut, [they can be] relevant in five seconds but they know that this is not right and they need to move on and expand creativity that a true representation of people as they are, in a way that is more helpful to people and to businesses.”



    Leave a comment