Advertising in China, India and Indonesia is 'lazy' and promotes stereotypes — Unilever wants to do something about it

In India, China and Indonesia, only 13 percent of adverts for consumer goods that feature women and 18 percent of ads with men could be considered "progressive," according to research commissioned by Unilever.

Aline Santos, Unilever's executive vice-president of global marketing, said that advertising had a way to go to catch up with societal changes in parts of Asia.

She cited a protest by Filipino women using the "BabaeAko" ("I Am Woman") hashtag against sexist comments made by President Rodrigo Duterte, and the legalization of gay sex and relationships in India earlier this month.

Santos, who is also the company's global head of diversity and inclusion, said that while there are progressive movements involving women in countries such as China, where there are more female than male students at universities, advertising in general lags behind.

"The region is starting to see things that they've never seen before… there is a lot of progress in places you wouldn't expect," she told CNBC by phone on Wednesday. Unilever is the world's second-largest advertiser and houses brands such as Lipton, Dove, Axe and Hellmann's, and already, 50 percent of the company's ads in the Asia-Pacific region are seen by consumers as progressive, Unilever research suggests.

Unilever's Aline Santos at advertising festival Cannes Lions, France, in June 2018
Unilever's Aline Santos at advertising festival Cannes Lions, France, in June 2018

But for the consumer-goods industry in general, advertising has to move on. "And yet you look to advertising and you know, women are only portrayed as housewives, as someone that doesn't have a very important career, or intelligent or a leader. It's really, really a big gap between the reality of those countries and how we are portraying people in advertising," she added.

The company hired consultancy Ebiquity to analyze 500 TV and online video commercials in the beauty and personal care, homecare and food categories — across different companies — that aired between January 1 and July 31 in India, China and Indonesia.

It found that 1 percent showed women as intelligent or in a leadership role, just 3 percent included women over the age of 40 and none portrayed men cooking. People with disabilities didn't feature in any of the ads reviewed.

These stereotypes exist because of apathy in the companies that commission advertising, Santos said. "The only excuse that I can find with this big gap that I see, is that we as an industry, we have been lazy — lazy because we are very clever people, we understand society, we are close to consumers, but when we are developing (advertising) scripts and when we are approving scripts from the marketing side, we are probably not thinking about it."

Unilever is working to "revise" its brands to be more inclusive in the role they play. For example, ads about Brooke Bond Red Label tea used to focus on people being together over a hot drink, but in 2016 the idea changed.

The company wanted to "make the world a more welcoming place — one cup of tea at a time." In India, it worked with production company Y Films that had pitched an idea about finding transgender musicians who would perform together. Six months later, the 6 Pack Band was formed, with their music videos subtly featuring Brooke Bond tea.

"Five years ago, or three years ago, you wouldn't imagine that Brooke Bond would create a band of transgender people, never ever, because we were so traditional," Santos said. The campaign won a top award at ad festival Cannes Lions in France, as well as selling more tea. Brooke Bond markets that have adopted this unstereotypical approach are growing three times faster than those that haven't, according to Unilever.

Unilever is working with its creative agencies in Asia to make sure TV ad scripts are inclusive and will ask consumers their opinions before campaigns are launched.

Santos spoke to CNBC from a conference in Singapore, which she was attending to try to understand how the Asian consumer goods industry can better reflect society in its ads, as well as meeting with agencies, tech companies and other marketers in the region.

In 2017, it formed an "Unstereotype Alliance" with competitors such as Procter and Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, "people that normally wouldn't sit around a table with us," as well as the UN, to tackle sexism and other stereotypes in ads.

"We believe that this is good business for everyone and this is something that we need to accelerate," Santos said.

Research done by Millward Brown suggests that balanced ads lead to more sales, with those who saw the most progressive Unilever commercials being 18 percent more likely to think about buying a product compared to ads that showed stereotypes. The consultancy surveyed more than 77,000 people around the world, as part of ongoing research with the company.

It's not just women who suffer negative portrayals. Unilever's research with Ebiquity found that only 18 percent of the men in the 500 ads it analyzed were portrayed progressively. "It's so difficult (for men), you have to be super-successful, you have to be very smart, you have to be a leader, you have to be sporty, you have to have a six pack, it's impossible to be a man isn't it?" Santos said.

Marketers have traditionally chosen demographic groups to target, which arguably could be stereotypical. Santos gave the example of Knorr stock cubes, whose target audience used to be women in different age groups. Now it's more about marketing to people who love food, she said. "Now the segmentation is more about: these people are people that love vegan food. These people are people who like meat. So it's about people, it's not about a gender or an age."

Unilever will also commission semiotic analysis to understand how language and imagery affects people's portrayal of its products and advertising, with an emphasis on how brands should sound on voice-enabled devices.