Axe And Dove Parent Company Promises No More Sexist Ads After Bleak Report

If only 2 percent of your ads feature “intelligent women,” that’s a problem.
Women featured in Dove's 'Love Your Hair' campaign.
Women featured in Dove's 'Love Your Hair' campaign.
Dove Hair

It's no secret that sexism runs rampant in the advertising world, and now one company says it has made a commitment to do something about it.

Unilever, the company that owns over 400 brands including Dove, Sunsilk and Lynx, announced on Wednesday plans to remove sexist stereotypes from the ads for all of its brands. The decision by the company, which also sponsors a HuffPost video series, came down to business sense. Research conducted by the company found that 40 percent of women surveyed said they couldn't relate to the women in the company's ads.

The company's study, conducted over two years, found that only 2 percent of its ads show intelligent women. Most women in their ads are represented in domestic roles, with only 3 percent depicted as women in professional positions. A mere 1 percent of ads showed women who were funny.

Past research has revealed how sexism plays a role in advertising as a whole. In addition to representations of women as domestic goddesses and sex objects, a 2013 study from the University of Manitoba found that 56 percent of the advertising targeted towards men also shows images of hyper-masculinity, which perpetuate harmful ideas that men should be violent, sexually aggressive, and unemotional.

From a past ad for Axe

Unilever plans to combat outdated stereotypes by showing more accurate representations of women in their ads. So while brands like Dove have shifted towards campaigns about body-positivity and female empowerment, other brands like Axe (which has released sexist ads in the past) plan to pivot towards more inclusive advertising.

“It was globally resounding that women are ever advancing in terms of equality, structure and human rights,” Unilever said in a statement to The Guardian.

“Yet the media and advertising specifically have been slow to reflect the changing shape of gender identity and often depict, at best, a current view of society, and sometimes a backward view.”

There has been an ongoing conversation about the ethics of "femvertising," which is advertising designed to appeal to women through messaging of empowerment and self-acceptance. While some women praise ad campaigns like Dove's "Real Beauty" initiative and "#LikeAGirl" by Always, others are skeptical of the motives of ad agencies that play on girl power.

As Everyday Sexism Project founder Laura Bates told The Telegraph in 2014, "There's a big difference between simply pushing out a feminist ad campaign in the hope that it will go viral and actually designing a product with the principle of equality at its heart, say, or embodying that message by acting internally on issues from equal pay to parental leave.”

She added, “While I applaud progress, wouldn't it be nice to live in a world where we didn't have to celebrate ad campaigns that give children equal access to toys or don't present women in a sexist way -- because [those things were] just the norm?"

Hopefully, the advertising industry will continue to take notice of the ways sexism manifests itself both internally and in their ads. Because ultimately, the stereotypes we see in ads have a real-life impact on the way we treat women.

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