FMCG giant Unilever has partnered rival Procter & Gamble, UN Women, Alibaba, Johnson & Johnson, Twitter, Facebook and Google , amongst others, for its Unstereotype Alliance that aims to extirpate stereotypical portrayal of gender in advertising. Ads have conventionally portrayed men and women in gender-reductive roles. Not until recently did detergent commercials show men washing clothes; even so, ads for dish-washing products still don’t show men at the kitchen sink and SUV ads tell you only men get to off-road it in a jungle. The absolute worst? Ads for condoms—a product entirely aimed at men—are replete with another stereotypical portrayal of women: the sex object. There is every reason, therefore, to celebrate Unilever’s attempt to remedy this. That said, Unilever’s and P&G’s personal care product lines—fairness, skin care—have thrived on stereotypical portrayals of women in their ads as have their cleansing products. For instance, two of Unilever’s hottest selling brands in India are Surf Excel and Fair & Lovely. For decades now, ads for the former have been convincing women that the responsibility of delivering truckloads of spotless laundry is theirs and for the latter telling India’s brown-skinned women that they must “lighten” their natural complexions—to land a job, among other things! So, Unstereotype campaign should perhaps begin with atonement.
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The problem is most companies, including FMCG companies, are only now waking up to the damage gender stereotyping has done, after decades of spending on advertising that reinforced these stereotypes. Such conditioning of the consumer will be a tough thing to undo—that’s a challenge Unstereotype must confront. Otherwise, the consumer will forever be stuck with ads subliminally telling her that domestic chores and care-giving are what women do while men do something “toofani”—a stand-in Hindi word for ‘astoundingly adventurous’—like sail stormy seas because only they realise that “darr ke aage jeet hai” (beyond fear, there lies victory).