Based on various research studies in 25 markets over the last two years, the owner of Hellmann's mayonnaise, Knorr seasoning and Magnum ice cream made several profound discoveries about how women are depicted in ads.
"Forty percent of women don't recognise themselves in advertising," Aline Santos, EVP/Global Marketing at Unilever, said at a recent conference. (For more, including how this idea is being implemented in practice, read Warc's exclusive report: Unilever's formula for avoiding advertising stereotypes.)
Additional data points helped highlight this issue, as 90% of female consumers believe women are presented as sex symbols in ads, and almost 30% agreed these messages show a male view of women.
Similarly, analysing the content of ads made for stark reading, as 50% perpetuated negative or "not progressive" images of women, whereas only 3% depicted them in managerial or professional roles.
Worse still, just 2% of the ads assessed demonstrated instances of women being intelligent, falling to 1% when it came to being funny.
Addressing such a failing in its own output – or what the firm calls an attempt to "unstereotype" advertising – can potentially drive revenue for Unilever, which serves two billion consumers a day, and has an adspend of roughly $8bn a year.
But the impact can be significantly broader, too. "Advertising is a very big force for change. We can use this force for good. We can use this force to do better business, and do something good for society," Santos said.
"We still want women to cook. We still want women to clean. We may have them in advertising … We just want to do it with more respect; when it's contextualised; when it's right."
Although the "gap" between advertising depictions and reality is greatest for women, Santos conceded that men have frequently been reduced to caricatures, and this will be another area of focus.
"From a Unilever perspective, we're on a journey. I don't think we are going to be perfect tomorrow," she continued. "But we need to start from somewhere. And this is the place that we're going to start."
Data sourced from Warc