Unilever Neutral marketing: A long way from ‘battered parent syndrome’

Last week at the Cannes Lions Advertising Festival Unilever the world’s second-biggest advertiser, which spends €8bn (£6.3bn) a year on more than 400 brands from Sunsilk to Knorr, unveiled a global strategy to “unstereotype” its advertising and eradicate outdated portrayals of gender. This move to break stereotyping in its global adverts is radical. It will set in motion a change to the landscape of adverts and the marketing mix which will need to be more gender ‘neutral’. It is a long way from the ‘battered parent’ adverts which targeted women in the 1960’s.

What we are seeing here is a challenge to the age old method and ways that marketing works. Companies create products, then they create symptoms or problems the product can solve and then they create the ‘stereotypical” consumer who will buy the product.

The trouble with consumers is they are not predictable. Marketing people for years have being trying to create boxes to put them in.

The best thing for marketing people is to promote products and services as life enhancers, as 'need to have items and 'life changers’. This drives sales and quickly. This is how segmentation came hand in hand with brands stereotyping men and women and putting them in those boxes. These strategies although flawed are understandable. Marketing people need a place to start. Segmenting is that point and stereotyping is the end point. One drives the other and in many ways both lose sight of each other.

To understand we need to go back to the 1960s when the phrase "The medium is the message" was coined by Marshall McLuhan. Society was rapidly changing, Kodak camera and shifts in technology were enabling marketing teams project images to consumers like never before. The economic boom and industrial drive of the post war years saw more products coming to market before. Marketing and the people on Madison Avenue faced the same old challenge. A glut of products to market but not knowing which consumers would buy them nor which features would create the biggest draw.

The challenge here was in creating the demand for the products (“How do we get people to buy this stuff!”).

To create the demand for the products and to drive sales the market needs to be created. The best case study of this demand creation and stereotyping can be seen in the work of big pharma in the 60’s. Over the decade there are some incredible adverts of women being stereotyped as over worked, suffering from fatigue and in need of help! The Rolling Stones sung about “Mothers Little Helper” not because Keith and Mick were going to go into the kitchen and do the dishes. It was a commentary on drugs such as diazepam being advertised openly to house wives to help them through their day.

Big Pharma has a long history in this space. Creating the pill, then the condition and then finding the market. It would be completely wrong to say big pharma is the only part of the marketing industry that utilises this methodology. However it does offer a lovely case study in segmenting stereotyping. Reviewing these adverts today is in some ways comical, shocking and strange. Here is big pharma sending the message to house wives that they are busy, overworked, stressed, taking care of children and husbands and needed help to take the pressure off.

The solution to all these ‘problems’ the industry had identified was in the latest drugs they could offer. These are marketed with the tag lines: You can’t set her free. But you can help her feel less anxious” - SERAX , Syndromes of the Sixties - “The Battered Parent Syndrome” - MILTOWN and so it goes on.  (There is a lovely post on the go retro site detailing the targeting of big pharma in the 1960’s.)

The one thing that is clear is the stereotyping of women. Fragile, emotional, overworked, at breaking point in need of chemical intervention. Obviously the world has moved on in many ways and to run adverts such as this would be unacceptable. But the ingredients of the stereotyping mix are clear as they are today in the many products which are advertised to women. It’s an easy trick this gender division and makes the marketing of a product defined along gender lines. Pink for girl’s blue for boys.

The reason that Unilever, the owner of brands including Dove and Lynx, has pledged to drop all sexist stereotypes from its advertising is because its research suggested just 2% of ads show intelligent women. It is an interesting point in time because these adds look so dated, basic and uncreative - also it seems such an obvious point.  Look at the adverts for Gillette razors which are male dominated and for a “man’s world”. In a base way it makes sense - but standing back it makes no sense.

If Unilever lead a charge on the market where will it lead? Gender neutral advertising suggests that the creative can only be on the features and benefits. Will this be limiting? Or alternatively is this where the power of storytelling comes in which will force marketers not to rely on lazy stereotyping but instead be creative to deliver the message.

Whatever the outcome it is a bold and a radical move.