Rejecting outmoded stereotypes is becoming table stakes for advertisers. At a recent conference, Stephen Whiteside from WARC learned that flipping them may be even more powerful.

Don’t just challenge gender stereotypes in advertising. Flip them.

So advises Dr. Yalda T. Uhls – founder of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers at the University of California/Los Angeles, where she also serves as an assistant adjunct professor. And her counsel has powerful implications for brand custodians who are equally interested in driving social change and advertising impact.

A case in point: rather than portray a woman as a doting mother and a man as a high-achiever in the business world, an ad should have its male protagonist taking care of the child at home and a female lead who thrives in a professional setting.

This approach is called a “counter-stereotypical narrative,” Uhls told delegates at the #SeeHer 2019 Creative and Media Leadership Summit in New York, an event linked to an initiative of the same name developed by the Association of National Advertisers (ANA), the trade body for client-side marketers, and the Female Quotient, an organization focused on achieving workplace equality.

And academic research has demonstrated that counter-stereotypical narratives generate very desirable outcomes for brands. One ethical payoff: “We have found that counter-stereotypical narratives can reduce unconscious bias by almost as much as 40%.”

A supplementary business outcome from subverting expectations: “A nice side effect of counter-stereotypical narratives, beyond just reducing bias, is it actually grabs attention much more than a stereotypical narrative … They grab attention. And, in an attention economy, that’s what we want.”

Such learning reflects the focus of the Center for Scholars and Storytellers, which “brings together” these two groups in a bid to assist in the creation of authentic and inclusive content, said Uhls – who has also worked at media enterprises like the Disney Channel, MGM Pictures, and Sony.

Building on this expertise, she outlined a few granular tips for marketers that are interested in pushing for social change and hitting their key performance indicators:

Change Depictions of Men

Over the past year, research at the Center for Scholars and Storytellers has addressed how boys and men are portrayed – and the damaging stereotypes that are applied to traditional visions of masculinity.

Flipping the script on these noxious depictions will require moving beyond scripts that champion men who are rugged and emotionless, and instead offering a “more full and nuanced” perspective on the male gender, according to Uhls.

“What might that mean?” she asked the New York assembly. “All of us know men that are kind, yet they are often portrayed [in ads] as tough and insensitive … Let’s show men that are kind, and nice, and vulnerable, and emotional.

“We all know men that help women, yet we often see – particularly in the news media – the opposite portrayal: men that are anti-women. Let’s show men as allies. Men are influenced by seeing other men. And by portraying men as allies, you will show other men, and inspire men, to be proactive agents of change for women.”


An ad that shows a man happily cooking in the kitchen is one example of a counter-stereotypical narrative. A woman triumphing in the boardroom might be another. And if a commercial features both of these storylines, a multiplier effect can emerge.

“If you really want to reduce unconscious bias, it’s not enough just to always show [one side]. It helps. But to get the most impact … show a counter-stereotype of a woman and a man. So, show a man that’s kind and vulnerable, while a woman is strong and competent,” Uhls said.

“What you want to do is you need to put both of them in the same scene.”


Outmoded norms must be rejected with words and pictures alike.

“Think about your linguistic biases,” Uhls proposed. “Language matters, as you all know. Women are often described as ‘hard-working’; men are described as ‘brilliant’. So, switch it up. Talk about men that are ‘hard-working’ and women that are ‘brilliant.’”

And embracing these counter-stereotypical narratives may well deliver truly hard-working media activations that yield brilliant results for marketers.