Unilever explores the relationship between science and stereotyping

By Natasha Spencer

- Last updated on GMT

Unilever explores the relationship between science and stereotyping
Consumer goods giant, Unilever, enlists the support and expertise of academics at University College London (UCL) to carry out a personal care experiment into the power and prevalence of stereotypes.

On the 17th June, Unilever unveiled its latest project, which forms part of its Unstereotype initiative. The project comes as the multinational company strives to change how advertising agencies define and consider their target audiences. 

Its ultimate aim is to spur new commissions of creative ideas that push “progressive, inclusive and unstereotypical portrayals of people”​, Unilever revealed in a recent press release.

Hailed as the science against stereotyping, Unilever teamed up with UCL to conduct experiments to look at whether DNA and behavioural analysis can indicate and shape individuals’ perceptions. 

Headed up by Dr Lasana Harris, Associate Professor in Experimental Psychology and Dr Gorkan Ahmetoglu, Assistant Professor in Business Psychology at UCL, the study was conducted as a clinical trial with a control sample that spanned participants from London, Rotterdam and New York. 

Over 60 advertising and marketing professionals throughout Unilever and its lead agency partners across 12 of its brands were included in the experiment. 

How Genes Impact Stereotypes

A DNA analysis was designed to give participants a wider understanding and insights into the origins of their perceptions. The workshop explored behavioural changes to focus on beliefs about themselves and the world around them. 

“While there are huge genetic similarities common to human beings, what is undeniable is that every single one of us has our own genetic profile,” ​Dr Lasana Harris, Associate Professor in Experimental Psychology, emphasised. 

The DNA part of the test was assumed to prepare and challenge existing marketing beliefs in a bid to look at their identity and explore how they feel about themselves through the accompanying workshop. 

By analysing the science behind these stereotypes, UCL made the hypothesis that participants in the experiment would be more willing to answer specific questions on how they advertisers may unintentionally adopt stereotypes driving concepts in their advertising campaigns. 

The Science of Behaviour

Conducted with UCL professors, the workshop concentrated on how and when stereotypes are learned, the brain mechanisms that lead to these and how we can unlearn stereotypical thought patterns and replace these will inclusive campaign fundamentals. 

Experimental evidence indicates that after one day of concentrated intervention, the combination of DNA and behavioural analysis can lower stereotypical responses. 

"Taking people on a journey through their own DNA profile created a moment of reappraisal and, in many cases, that realisation of their ancestry proved to be a great surprise to them. Coupled with training on how the brain forms stereotypes, we challenged their perceptions of themselves and, in turn, that of others,”​ Dr Harris confirmed. 

Results were based on pre and post assessments of participants versus a control group. These explorations looked at the extent that consumer profiles were labelled with stereotypes determined by cultural norms. These showed a 35% reduction in unconscious stereotyping amongst those who took part, as well as a meaningful shift in original thinking.

Progressive, Creative and Inclusive Advertising 

Global household name, Unilever, has a portfolio of over 400 brands including Rexona, Omo and Knorr. Currently, 6% of the organisation’s worldwide advertising, when pre-tested before being aired, is considered outdated by consumers. When measured, 45% of Unilever’s pre-tested global ads were believed to be strongly progressive. 

Commenting on how the company is looking at advancing these efforts, Aline Santos, Unilever’s EVP of Global Marketing and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer explained: “We are constantly innovating to find new ways to accelerate Unstereotype across our workforce and in our advertising. Becoming conscious of our blind spots and biases that are holding us back is fundamental, but unconscious bias training has its limitations.”

Adopting a more human approach, Unilever plans to produce more diverse, inclusive advertising, and more creative and engaging content. 

Independent data by Kantar for Unilever reveals that the company’s progressive-focused advertising is more effective, producing 37% more branded impact.

“In today’s marketing, we are blessed with a wealth of data and technology that can drive efficiency. But that efficiency should never be at the cost of empathy. If we aren’t in the business of understanding humans, we aren’t in business at all. The business case for Unstereotype is only getting stronger, proving the need for us all to come to work as people first and marketers second,” ​Santos added. 

Related topics: Brand Innovation

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