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Could the advertising industry be next victim of ‘cancel culture’?

  • New research from Unilever shows that almost one in two people from marginalised communities feel they have been stereotyped in some way through advertising
  • 71% of consumers think the use of stereotypes in media is a bad influence on younger people
  • The findings reveal that 66% of consumers believe ads could change the world, and demand that the ad world ends stereotypes

London - From football to film, the wave of boycotts and ‘cancel culture’ sweeping industries regarded as not diverse and inclusive enough could have the advertising industry in its sights. A new study by Unilever has found that nearly one in two people from marginalised communities – people with disabilities, and Black, Hispanic, Asian, and LGBTQ+ people – feel they have been stereotyped in some way through advertising. The study also highlights that it isn’t just marginalised people who feel the impact: 71% believe stereotypes in media are harming the younger generation, signalling the industry as the latest institution being called upon to step up, or risk people boycotting their products and services.

Unilever logo on the entrance of deodorant factory in Jiutepec Mexico

Unilever’s research commissioned via Kantar shows that people are increasingly disconnected with advertising today: less than one in five believe that ads are representative of wider society, fuelling concerns advertising could consign itself to history if it doesn’t rebuild its own image – and go further, in helping to build a better world.

The research also showed that those from under-represented communities are impacted the most, and are up to 30% more likely to be stereotyped than the general population. In fact, a staggering 55% of women of Asian heritage believe that stereotypes in advertising don’t represent them; 46% of men with a disability say they often see negative portrayals of people like them in ads; and 66% of LGBTQ+ aged 18-34 believe people from diverse backgrounds feature in ads ‘just to make up the numbers’.

Commenting on the findings, Tarana Burke, founder, The 'me too' Movement, said: “Society and consumers are telling brands out loud that they are hurting. This is the moment for the industry to show it listens to marginalised voices. Underrepresented people need to not just feel included but be included. This is what will transform the messages we hear, the images we see, the products we use, and how each of these are created. The ad world must lend its talents to lead true change in society. It must listen to the people who are leading these lives and these movements, and ACT on what is heard. When anyone feels represented in the mainstream, it has the power to fulfil the fundamental human need to be heard - one that the industry can actually help deliver on.”

To address this, Unilever is broadening its 2016 commitment to Unstereotype, and is challenging itself to create marketing, not just advertising, that will help influence the next generation of people to be free from prejudice. Unilever’s ‘Act 2 Unstereotype’ goes even deeper to make real, structural changes to the entire marketing process. It aims to provoke and integrate more diverse and inclusive thinking across every brand - from new product development through to advertising production. By serving more diverse people in a progressive way, Unilever believes its brands can be at the forefront of shaping a fairer and more inclusive world.

The actions that will help Unilever achieve its ‘Act 2 Unstereotype’ vision are:

  • To provoke inclusive thinking across the end-to-end marketing process from consumer insight, brand DNA and proposition, marketing mix development, creative development, behind the camera and on-screen portrayals.
  • To ensure an Unstereotype Charter for every Unilever brand, outlining the ED&I commitments the brand will deliver through its marketing.
  • To work with more diverse and under-represented groups on screen and behind the camera.
  • To eradicate any digital alterations to photography – a 100% ban on changing models’ body shape, size, proportion or skin colour.

Aline Santos, Chief Brand Officer and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer at Unilever said: “If we want to see systemic change in society, we need to see systemic change in our industry. Act 2 Unstereotype helps brands create a generation free from prejudice. Inclusive marketing is not a choice anymore; we must act now.”

The launch is being supported by a host of influencers, activists and experts, including Inclusive Designer and Disability Activist, Christina Mallon; Broadcaster and Cultural Commentator Sideman aka David Whitely; and Jon Miller, Founder and Chair of Open for Business, the coalition of global companies promoting LGBT+ inclusion. They feature in a short film produced by Unilever to highlight the need for the industry to act.

Unilever’s Act 2 Unstereotype commitments shared today are in addition to the company’s existing global commitments and actions to help build a more equitable and inclusive society. Earlier this year, Unilever announced its Positive Beauty vision, with the ambition to eliminate the word ‘normal’ from packaging and advertising across all beauty and personal care brands. Unilever also announced it would spend €2 billion annually with suppliers owned and led by people from under-represented groups.

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Notes to Editors


Online survey of 1500 UK and US adults was commissioned by Unilever and conducted by market research company Kantar, in accordance with the Market Research Society's code of conduct. All participants are double-opted in to take part in research and are paid an amount depending on the length and complexity of the survey. This survey was overseen and edited by the Kantar research team, who are members of the MRS and have corporate membership to ESOMAR.

About Act 2 Unstereotype

Unilever has launched Act 2 Unstereotype, in order to accelerate its journey to creating brands for a world which is progressive, fair and equal. This builds on Unilever’s 2016 #Unstereotype initiative to shift advertising away from stereotypical portrayals of gender to deliver fresh campaigns that create progress, including:

  • In 2020, 98% of Unilever global advertising was Unstereotypical and 60% of the ads were strongly progressive – and this is where Unilever continues to push further.
  • In 2020, Unilever advertising outperformed the industry norm by 1.2 times on Unstereotyping.
  • Unilever’s advertising production roster has 3000+ females from 60+ countries and the company is tracking both inclusion and awarded work in a triple bid process.
  • By 2025, Unilever will have 5% of its workforce represented by persons with disability.
  • In 2019, Unilever achieved 50/50 Gender Balance across management, and will continue its efforts to maintain this balance.
  • Unilever continues to be a proud member and Vice-Chair of the Unstereotype Alliance

Further information on action Unilever Brands have taken to Unstereotype is available.

Safe Harbour

Where relevant, these actions are subject to the appropriate consultations and approvals.

This announcement may contain forward-looking statements, including ‘forward-looking statements’ within the meaning of the United States Private Securities Litigation Reform Act of 1995. Words such as ‘will’, ‘aim’, ‘expects’, ‘anticipates’, ‘intends’, ‘looks’, ‘believes’, ‘vision’, or the negative of these terms and other similar expressions of future performance or results, and their negatives, are intended to identify such forward-looking statements. These forward-looking statements are based upon current expectations and assumptions regarding anticipated developments and other factors affecting the Unilever Group (the ‘Group’). They are not historical facts, nor are they guarantees of future performance.

Because these forward-looking statements involve risks and uncertainties, there are important factors that could cause actual results to differ materially from those expressed or implied by these forward-looking statements. Among other risks and uncertainties, the material or principal factors which could cause actual results to differ materially are: Unilever’s global brands not meeting consumer preferences; Unilever’s ability to innovate and remain competitive; Unilever’s investment choices in its portfolio management; the effect of climate change on Unilever’s business; Unilever’s ability to find sustainable solutions to its plastic packaging; significant changes or deterioration in customer relationships; the recruitment and retention of talented employees; disruptions in our supply chain and distribution; increases or volatility in the cost of raw materials and commodities; the production of safe and high quality products; secure and reliable IT infrastructure; execution of acquisitions, divestitures and business transformation projects; economic, social and political risks and natural disasters; financial risks; failure to meet high and ethical standards; and managing regulatory, tax and legal matters. A number of these risks have increased as a result of the current Covid-19 pandemic.

These forward-looking statements speak only as of the date of this document. Except as required by any applicable law or regulation, the Group expressly disclaims any obligation or undertaking to release publicly any updates or revisions to any forward-looking statements contained herein to reflect any change in the Group’s expectations with regard thereto or any change in events, conditions or circumstances on which any such statement is based.

Further details of potential risks and uncertainties affecting the Group are described in the Group’s filings with the London Stock Exchange, Euronext Amsterdam and the US Securities and Exchange Commission, including in the Unilever Annual Report and Accounts 2020.

  • Equity, diversity & inclusion