Open Letter: UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka issues open letter to the advertising industry

Date: Monday, June 18, 2018

[Originally published by the Unstereotype Alliance]

A year ago, in Cannes, France, leading voices in marketing and advertising created the Unstereotype Alliance – an industry collective with an unmatched potential to transform the world we see  through advertising and brand-led content. This alliance is unique in its ability to convene commercial rivals who have agreed to leave competition behind in favour of collaboration, to put stereotypes aside and humanity first.

Right now, the members of the Alliance include industry leaders from among the world’s largest advertisers, advertising groups and associations, and global advocates with research capacity and expertise that they have now turned on themselves.

Member research shows us that, right now, just 3 per cent of women in ads were shown as aspirational or in leadership positions and only 1 per cent were depicted as problem solvers, with men more than 60 per cent more likely to be shown as smart and capable. Consumer feedback tells us that not only do both women and men dislike the ways they are portrayed, but that ads that use progressive, multi-dimensional characters sell more product.

At UN Women, we ask why the messages we see every day on screens, pages and posters don’t show women as equal to men, girls as able as boys, and people in all their magnificent diversity. We want advertisers to not only portray the world as it is, which may perpetuate harmful cultural and social norms, but to show the world that we aspire to. We know that where there is inequality, there is discrimination; where there are power imbalances, there is violence; where there is exclusion, there is poverty of every kind. We have witnessed the rising tide of millions of women and men worldwide protesting the deep harm that has come from societies out of balance. We are committed to working together, with you, through the Unstereotype Alliance to change this.

We salute those companies who have already joined this bold initiative: Alibaba, ANA, ATT, Cannes Lions, Diageo, Facebook, Geena Davis Institute, Google, IPA, IPG, Johnson & Johnson, Mars, Mattel, Microsoft, P&G, The Female Quotient, Twitter, Unilever, WFA and WPP. And we warmly welcome our new members Adobe, Omnicom, Publicis Groupe, Vodafone, European Association of Communication Agencies, Boston Consulting Group, UNICEF, Free the Bid, and Jess Weiner.

And this is my invitation to you: to join this band of industry leaders, thinkers and advocates, to take responsibility for social change, and to repopulate our visual world with its missing and misrepresented figures, its missing equality, its missing role models.

This Alliance of experts, united under the UN flag, has unparalleled resources and experience that it is sharing with its members to expand the practices that bring changes in behaviour and attitude. Joining this movement is an opportunity to share in new metrics to assess gender bias in adverts; to address gender gaps to foster an unstereotyped culture in the workplace; and to contribute to and benefit from innovation, cutting edge research, and practical solutions.

When we get this right, together we can finally begin to address the unconscious bias against women and girls that underlies some of the major issues that we in the UN have committed to solving by 2030, like violence against women and girls, intergenerational poverty, and the exclusion of women from peacemaking processes. And we can cement the impact of legislation that supports gender equality and women’s empowerment. When we pass good laws without addressing the underlying norms and stereotypes, we do not have the desired impact.

This is ultimately about so much more than eliminating stereotypes. It is about making cultural change that has the potential to transform our societies, and our future.