Responsive and Responsible Advertising

By Miki Tsusaka

Senior Partner and Managing Director, The Boston Consulting Group


In my post last month about the 2017 WEF annual meeting in Davos, I wrote about issues of gender parity and its connection to the Davos theme of “responsive and responsible leadership.” I also discussed the necessity to remain both bold and adaptive at all times but perhaps especially now, in a period of geopolitical and economic uncertainty.

I was pleased that I came away from the meeting with a sense of the practical role marketing can play within this year’s theme—and within efforts to promote gender equality. As chief marketing officer of BCG and a passionate proponent of diversity, this was a conversation I’ve been wanting to take part in.

Executives from Unilever helped to spark that conversation by participating in a few sessions at Davos and discussing the company’s recent study on the “Unstereotyped Mindset”—research showing the influence of stereotypes and how they help maintain, and even widen, the world’s gender gap. In the study, more than 9,000 men and women were interviewed, and the results showed that gender stereotypes persist, they influence social norms—affecting careers and personal lives—and they impede overall positive change.

How Advertising Can Step Up Its Game

Stereotypes are complicated, of course, and there isn’t only one cause for their existence. But advertising can play a starring role in their formation, and companies—starting with senior leaders—can help with their dismantling. This is the thinking behind Unilever’s new #Unstereotype campaign—an effort to remove gender stereotyping from the company’s 400-plus brands around the world.

“Every day, 2 billion people use our products,” said Alan Jope, president of Unilever’s Personal Care business. “I believe that we can use our scale and reach to effect a positive transformation by challenging the social norms and gender stereotypes that hold women back.”

Unilever’s Dove was already tackling this effort with its campaign for Real Beauty, which launched in 2004. Other consumer and advertising companies have also begun exploring ways to tackle harmful stereotypes. Procter & Gamble’s award-winning “Like a Girl” campaign got people talking in 2015. And P&G’s #ShareTheLoad directly addressed traditional attitudes toward household work in India. Its ad for Ariel laundry detergentbecame a viral sensation, and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg called it “one of the most powerful videos I have ever seen.”

Powerful indeed. Advertising helps to shape our attitudes from a very young age, and companies have the chance to play a crucial role in speeding up change. According to the WEF’s most recent Global Gender Gap Report, it will take 170 years for the world to achieve gender equality—if we stay at the current rate of change—and that is a statistic that is economically destructive and ethically unacceptable.

Marketers can contribute to this dialogue and the movement of this cause by applying some basic marketing principles—but with an additional lens in mind:

Whom am I reaching and for what action goal; is it for the purpose of awareness, consideration, trial, repetition?

How much effort am I putting in (dollars, other resources), and am I getting the desired outcome?

What messages am I reinforcing at all levels? Am I doing my part to ensure we’re moving the world forward instead of backward by not reinforcing unconscious biases?

In the digital age, marketing is more complex—and potentially influential—than ever. It’s time for advertising to become more accountable for the power it has.





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