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Unstereotyping branded content in three steps

Authenticity is the true currency with which to win our audience’s trust and loyalty.

With the launch of the Unstereotype Alliance at this year’s Cannes Lions and ASA’s recent publication of guidelines to eliminate out-dated stereotypical portrayals from brand led content, the concept of ‘unstereotyping’ is no longer a buzzword but the commitment to a sustained and industry-wide effort.

A growing awareness of the psychological impact of restrictive stereotypes portrayal is coinciding with the move to on-demand and ‘culture-first’ media consumption and the dusk of interruptive advertising, which has us rethinking our entire approach to marketing. And sometimes it takes these seismic shifts to shake up old habits.

In the words of Unilever’s global executive vice-president of marketing, Aline Santos, who’s been championing this agenda and implementing trendsetting campaigns like Dove’s "Real Beauty", Axe/Lynx’s "Find your Magic" (pictured above) and Persil’s "Dirt is Good": "Unstereotyping is as much a business imperative as it is a societal responsibility, underlined by the fact that progressive adverts have been found to be 25% more effective and deliver better branded impact."

So it’s all hands on deck. And while I’m sure this rethink is welcomed across the board, it’s not easy to overcome our habit of using clichés when developing the stories we tell and the characters that inhabit them.

Firstly, for years, marketers themselves have been fed images of women as selfless domestic goddesses or style-obsessed vixens; men as either greedy for power or utterly incapable when faced with emotions or washing machines; and one-dimensional portrayals of ethnicity, sexual orientation, and just about every age group. With these narratives deeply ingrained in the industry’s unconscious, it’s no wonder many of us think as we do, and it will take all our efforts to break this bias spiral.

Secondly, the market research we base our creative on tends to provide consumer data that itself has been boiled down into types. When appealing to the elusive "lifestyle junkie", the "30+ style-conscious woman" or (gulp) "millennial", it’s easy to conclude we must re-appropriate existing type portrayals to speak to all of them at once and avoid alienating even one of their members. But it’s worth remembering that these consumer groups are made up of highly complex individuals who didn’t choose to be given a label.

Last but not least, the narrative restrictions of 30-second ads make it tempting to dig into the stereotype toolbox so that viewers will instantly recognise and hopefully identify with them. But we have to give our audience more credit. There’s a reason well-scripted serials are on the rise: people have a sophisticated sense of subtle story reading, and character depth encourages engagement.

Authenticity is the true currency with which to win our audience’s trust and loyalty. Luckily, with a wider range of branded content formats (short-to-medium, fictional or factual, serialised and multi-platform), we now have the luxury of added time to build relatable and intriguing personalities.

So, borrowing ideas from the film industry, which itself is increasingly advocating diverse characters, here are three thought-starters to get us going:

1) Think 3D

A two-dimensional character might read something like, "he's young and ambitious", or "she's calm and caring". See what happens when you add a third dimension: "he's young, ambitious and has a weakness for rescuing stray animals", or "she's calm, caring and technically gifted". Not only does adding a non-typical characteristic start building a more complex personality (a person, rather than a "type"), it also increases potential for more original storylines.

Personality contradictions (yes, we all have them) are good starting points for conflict or humorous situations, if that’s where your creative is heading. None of this means you can’t write a stay-at-home mum or a male engineer, but don’t make that their only defining characteristics.

2) Create a friend

When thinking about our friends, it’s often the quirks that form the foundations of our bonds, the things we’ve come to love over time. So write a character as complex and quirky as one of closest friend; someone whose shortcomings you forgive in a heartbeat. If you care about them, there's a good chance others will too.

3) Have a chat

Types are people we don't (yet) know well enough. When stuck for realistic actions and reactions, ask characters questions: "What’s the best that could happen in this situation? What’s the worst? What do you think the other character(s) want?"

This helps explore characters’ desires, fears and secrets; steering clear of stereotypical actions or making them passive (posing pouting lady alert) because they lack individual motivations.

If they don’t answer back, spend more time fleshing them out. Look a their backgrounds, ambitions, conflicts, strengths, wants and needs.

A lot needs to happen to get to a truly unstereotyped narrative tradition. On an industry level, it will take a greater variety of individuals in creative and executive roles to really diversify the stories we tell.

It’s a change that will rely on more role models, inspiring the next generation. It all starts with an attitude shift in both the real and the fictional worlds we create. Sounds like fun to me!