How will Unilever’s Stance on Sexism Affect China

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Recently, Unilever, the global firm behind more than 400 brands from Ben & Jerry’s to Dove soap, has made a commitment to avoid sexist advertising.  We look to see how this will affect China.

Following research that suggested that up to 40% of women surveyed did not identify with the portrayal of women in advertising.   Unilever, the purchaser of over 10 billion USD in advertising per year, has made this new commitment as part of campaign known as “Unstereotype”.

Over the years, advertising by deodorant brands such as Lynx and Axe, have presented women as one-dimensional, and simply, a bit stupid.    So Unilever, a brand house, with incredible presence in both mature and developing markets, should be congratulated for the stance they are making.

According to press release by Unilever Senior VP of Global Marketing, Aline Santos, “We (Unilever) want to portray women in roles that relate to their aspirations and broader achievements rather than just their responsibilities. We don’t want to show women as just supporting our product or supporting someone else. That isn’t what women are, and it isn’t how women see themselves“.
Read the full press release here.

So, how will this impact Chinese women

While Unilever brands enjoy success in China, some of the firm’s most iconic international campaigns did not translate well in China.

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Unilever’s Global Real Beauty Campaign

Two examples include – Real Beauty and Dirt is Good (for laundry powder).   Real Beauty came at a time when Chinese women were enthusiastically showcasing their beauty and ‘setting the bar’ very high, with narrow standards of beauty.  So while it was seen as an emancipatory message for international women, it simply came to early for Chinese women, on their journey to modernity.

This time, it feels Unilever’s stance on sexism comes at the right time for Chinese women.  A very noticeable change has occurred in the last few years, where women are becoming increasing confident and proud, partly as a result of stronger levels of professional parity, and also as a result of women increasing their control family finances.

This has been noticeable in terms of the rise of confident female celebrities – such as internet sensation Papi Jiang  – and recent brand campaigns, such as P&G’s SKII’s campaign on the leftover women issue in China.  For more detail on these trends, please read my article with Campaign Asia that explains why China’s Middle Class is Feminine.

Why Unilever’s new initiative will work well in China

Currently Chinese women are, to some extent, stuck in a conundrum.  Having grown-up as ‘prodigal sons’ under the one-child policy, and enjoyed new levels of professional success and advancement, they still face a traditional society head on.

The persistence of the “leftover women” debate, that places pressure on women to marry younger, flys straight in the face of demographic change and urban culture in China.   Media, both state and popular, still ‘straight-jackets’ women into particularly roles focussing on beauty.   The reality is that modern women are still juggling multiple roles, some independent and strong, some still limited and sexist.

In this context, an important expression of power for women in China, is their power to shop.  As single women, or as super-mums, they are likely to gravitate to brands that present the version of women that reflects reality, rather than the one they have to battle everyday.

About Author

Jerry Clode

Jerry Clode is Head of Digital & Social Insight at Resonance. He leads Resonance SMART, providing leading-edge research, strategy and naming for brands in China using bespoke methodologies. Jerry also produces Resonance's popular China Social Branding Report, a bi-weekly publication covering modern marketing methods of the world's top brands.

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