Publish Date: May 26, 2021

Report Finds Pre-Existing Inequalities Exacerbated Amid COVID-19 Pandemic


NEW YORK – May 26, 2021 –  The Unstereotype Alliance today published a State of the Industry report to assess the progress of diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives across the global advertising industry.

The report finds that pre-existing inequalities in the industry have been exacerbated amid the COVID-19 pandemic and, while global calls for social justice have led agencies and brands to scrutinise the levels of diversity in their workplaces and content, representation across the industry remains disproportionately low.

In June 2020, the Executive Director of UN Women and Chair of the Unstereotype Alliance,  Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, and Stephan Loerke, CEO of the World Federation of Advertisers, issued an urgent call to the advertising industry to hold itself to account for measurable change in the fight against inequality.

One year on, the report examines the progress made and identifies gaps and opportunities to drive transformative change in the industry. While efforts to improve diversity and inclusion were acknowledged, it finds there is still a disconnect between pledges and action.

The report was prepared by the Unstereotype Alliance Secretariat in collaboration with Oxford University Saïd Business School and WARC, and was released during the Unstereotype Alliance Global Summit, a forum for members to share strategies and inspiration to accelerate impact across the advertising industry. Convened by UN Women, the Unstereotype Alliance is a thought and action platform that seeks to eradicate harmful stereotypes from advertising and media. Download the full report here.

Dr. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka said: “2020 demonstrated how fast stereotypes are easily reasserted when crisis strikes, and the ways that women and marginalized communities are forced straight back behind the barriers of society’s requirements. This report shows how deeply ingrained inequalities in society are reflected directly back in our advertising. Whilst there are some pockets of progress, our work is far from done and consumers are taking notice. Tools and initiatives to redress inequities must now be implemented with rigour and promises must be met with action."

Stephan Loerke added: “There is still a long way to go for the ad industry to live up to its vision of diversity, equity and inclusion, but we are seeing green shoots and that is encouraging. The pandemic has exposed societal inequalities that have been ignored for too long. It has shone a harsh light on prevalent stereotypes in society and in our industry, but in terms of upsides, I think it’s increased people’s demand for change, and there is a sense within our industry that returning to pre COVID life in 2021 is simply not an option anymore.”

Rhonda Hadi, Associate Professor of Marketing, Saïd Business School, University of Oxford said: “While the advertising industry has increased its attention to issues surrounding diversity and inclusion, this report highlights that much more needs to be done in order to support workplace equality and promote unstereotyped advertising. Systemic and sustainable change will require data-driven approaches to assessment and tracking, and rigorous research can help inform implementation strategies towards these important goals."


Paul Coxhill, Managing Director, WARC said: “WARC are proud to contribute to this important report. Whilst it shows some progress has been made in the last year, it also signals that there’s a long way to go in representation in the advertising industry and ad campaigns, as well as in turning good intentions into tangible actions. Measurement, process and accountability will be key as we move forward”.


The State of the Industry report has three key areas of focus: fostering workplace equality, achieving unstereotyped advertising and empowering public action against stereotypes. It found:

  • Fostering workplace equality: The inclusion of under-represented groups in senior leadership roles across the global advertising industry needs significant improvement and COVID-19 has stifled progress. According to a global LinkedIn study, nearly 60% of women surveyed working in marketing have either left or have contemplated leaving the industry amid the pandemic. Pledges and commitments from organisations must be transformed into action, with clear accountability metrics.
  • Achieving unstereotyped advertising: Advertising continues to under-represent minority groups and perpetuate ingrained stereotypes and traditional gender norms. The 2020 Unstereotype Metric Report, produced by Unstereotype Alliance member Kantar, indicates that only 22% of ads tested featured a mixture of individuals with different ethnic origins and skin colors. Furthermore, only 5% of ads featured individuals from the LGBTIQ+ community.  In an analysis of the creative production process, the report found that discrimination in casting practices is still widespread; findings from a 2020 WE ARE Pi study published by WARC indicates that 91% of respondents believe racial profiling is an issue in ad casting, 70% have witnessed individuals being excluded from the casting process because they are Black, and 52% were silenced or ignored when taking action against racist decision-making. Incremental change needs to be accelerated throughout the creative process and in the output
  • Empowering public action against stereotypes: Consumers are increasingly holding companies accountable for their stance on diversity, inclusion, and anti-discrimination. They demand tangible action and transparency, and may boycott brands that do not meet their expectations. According to a global Salesforce study, 71% of respondents indicated that they pay more attention to a company’s values in 2020 than in 2019, and 75% state that a vendor’s ethics increasingly factor into their purchasing decisions.

The four Vice-Chairs of the Unstereotype Alliance—IPG, Mars, Safaricom and Unilever —provided reaction to conclusions reached in this year’s report:

  • Alan Jope, Chief Executive Officer of Unilever, commented: “This report acts as a stark reminder that we are not moving fast enough to break down harmful stereotypes.  As we re-emerge from the pandemic, it is a great moment to take decisive action to forge a more inclusive and diverse industry.  Companies and brands that take action today will simply be more relevant tomorrow.”
  • Fiona Dawson, Global President of Mars Food, Multisales and Global Customers, commented: “I think the report is incredibly powerful.  It shows us the progress made; however, there’s so much more to be done. None of us could have predicted this post-COVID era. It is a tragedy that it is bringing even more challenges to underrepresented groups in the world and driving further inequality.  As leaders and organisations, we have to listen, understand and respond, and evolve our brands to respond in an authentic way while ensuring they are part of the solution.” 
  • Michael Roth, Executive Chairman at Interpublic Group (IPG), commented: “It's important to have measurement to really know what's happening so we can take actions against it. Unfortunately this report shows the industry and the world have a long way to go. Notwithstanding the great work that is happening, we have to be more effective in the work that we do and we have to be very responsive in the marketplace. Consumers want to make sure they’re dealing with companies that stand for values that are consistent with theirs, and the way individuals are represented in the work and the advertising is the first sight of that. Now we have to leverage what we’ve learnt from this report and move quickly.”
  • Sylvia Mulinge, Chief Customer Officer of ‎Safaricom, commented: “I think we are all working towards the same aspiration in different parts of the world and the human need is the same. In the US and Europe, a lot of the conversations are about race, while in Kenya it is about the ethnic tribes we come from. We all want to create a world where people have their own space, where they feel safe to express their authentic and assimilated self; we as companies have a very big role in shaping that agenda. The key thing is to keep asking ‘How do we represent the face of consumers regardless of where they come from?’. People want brands that look like them, talk like them, feel like them and represent the humanity that we are living in.”

About the Unstereotype Alliance

Since its launch in 2017, the Unstereotype Alliance has built momentum behind notable achievements such as 'unstereotyped' judging criteria as part of industry award programmes including Cannes Lions. The Unstereotype Alliance seeks to eradicate harmful stereotypes from advertising and media to help create a more equal world. Convened by UN Women, the United Nations entity for Gender Equality, the Alliance collectively acts to empower people in all their diversity (gender, race, class, age, ability, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, language, education, etc.) by using advertising as a force for good to drive positive change all over the world.

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