When we erase people in culture, we put our brands and our society at risk
A view from Aline Santos

When we erase people in culture, we put our brands and our society at risk

Diversity cannot be considered separate to the creative process.

If I could change one thing – diversity and inclusion should not be seen as separate to the creative process; it is the creative process.

The average person sees somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 ads per day. For better or worse, advertising plays a huge role in reflecting and shaping our society.  

My dream is for the advertising industry to use more of that power to show, and deliver, a more representative, progressive, unstereotypical world free from the negative stereotypes and social norms that hold people back. 

The facts remain: 70% of women say they still don’t feel represented in the images they see every day; 79% of over-55s feel that advertising portrays them inaccurately; 51% of global LGBT+ consumers say: "I wish I could see more ads with families like mine." 

Beyond the issue of accurate, diverse and authentic representation, there’s the problem of invisibility and the millions of people who are erased in culture. Although nearly one in five people have a disability, they are depicted in just 2% of publicly available imagery. Statistics such as this can be found for many groups and social identities across the world. 

Make no mistake, when we erase or fail to show real and human portrayals, we put our brands at risk, not just society. We know that when people see themselves in our advertising, their engagement with our brands is much deeper. What’s more, we know that progressive ads – that’s ads that show men and women as modern, empowered and free from stereotypes – create 37% more branded impact and increase purchase intent by 28%. 

So, what can be done?

The process of diverse and inclusive storytelling starts with the storytellers. We need diverse and inclusive teams behind the camera as well as in front of it, using different perspectives and an awareness of their own biases to deliver creative, breakthrough campaigns than connect with people everywhere.

Teams who deliver amazing work such as Dove’s Project #ShowUs, which has created the world’s biggest photo library by female and non-binary individuals. Under the initiative, 179 individuals from 39 countries personally defined their own search descriptions and tags for their images (a first for project partner Getty Images), giving them the opportunity to define real beauty on their own teams.

We need diverse storytellers who can tell untold stories with empathy and authenticity. For example, the award-winning Unilever Sunsilk campaign in Thailand was inspired by the true story of a transgender woman. The team who worked on the TV spot included two transgender people, who were crucial in ensuring the film was truly authentic. The result: Sunsilk’s most successful digital campaign in Unilever Thailand's history and an increase in market share. 

The process for building diverse teams starts with more inclusive hiring, ensuring the process is as accessible as possible. At Unilever, we have reached 49% of women in management positions against a target of 50% by 2020 (38% in 2010). 

New tools such as artificial intelligence aren’t yet perfect, but can potentially drive better balance and are worth trialling where possible. Introducing bots and gaming into our recruitment process has helped us to have balanced 50/50 recruitment for our graduate recruitment programme. 

When we have our people in place, we need to ensure we have a truly inclusive culture that makes them feel that they belong and that they can bring their authentic selves to work. After finding that 60% of women and 49% men felt that stereotypes held them back in the workplace, our internal #UnstereotypeTheWorkplace programme has become the theme for all our work around inclusion and breaking norms, reaching more than 100,000 marketers around the world to date.   

Throughout our marketing and creative supply chain, we have rolled out a programme to help understand and manage the biases we all carry with us. We launched a project with University College London to develop a deeply immersive unconscious bias training programme for our marketing teams that has delivered a measurable reduction in stereotypical thinking and increased creativity. 

Our global advertising production roster covers nearly 70 countries with almost 800 commercially experienced female directors and photographers; we are working to increase this number across all elements of ad creation. We have also tasked our agency networks to support our goals of increasing rates of awarding projects to female directors and photographers to drive our diversity agenda.

This might not be enough. Even here I’ve only talked about gender, and there are so many other areas to address, looking at how we better represent and include people with different abilities, social backgrounds, sexual orientations, religions – both in front and behind the camera.

But in this new decade, I hope that we will start to see change at the pace we need. Next year will mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action – the most progressive blueprint for advancing women’s rights. To advance this agenda, UN Women together with the Unstereotype Alliance, is working on The Generation Equality Forum, galvanising advocates from around the world to call for action and accountability for the full realisation of gender equality. 

I hope to see our industry stand up and rise to the challenge and make the tangible changes we so desperately need. 

Aline Santos is executive vice-president, global marketing, and chief diversity and inclusion officer at Unilever. She is a member of Campaign’s Power 100