In a world of doubters, someone still believes in the power of advertising: The United Nations.
The UN Women organization came to Cannes this week to convene a sort of Security Council of the ad industry, including many of its biggest-spending marketers, three of the biggest agency holding companies, digital duopolists Facebook and Google, Alibaba, and more. The idea is that advertising can do what more than two decades of UN proclamations, local laws and good intentions haven't -- spur real progress on gender issues.
"No country in the world has achieved gender equality, even though we have big initiatives and laws passed," said Phumzile Miambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN Women in an interview. "Changing laws didn't do much to change cultural norms. Advertising has skill in behavior change."
That skill is maybe underdeveloped. Unilever started its own "Unstereotype" program in Cannes last year on the premise that advertising hasn't even evolved at the same pace as society, said Aline Santos, senior VP-marketing at Unilever. The company, having left all Axe's lad humor behind, now finds ads without stereotypes have considerably better results. And the company, ticker symbol UN, decided to lend its gender-equity brand name to the real UN, all to the end of convening a high-powered group of rivals around the effort.
If it's been such a competitive advantage, why invite competitors to join? "We don't want this to be used as a competitive advantage," Santos said. "We want this to be a norm."
Procter & Gamble Chief Brand Officer Marc Pritchard, who began P&G's own corporate-branded #WeSeeEqual campaign earlier this year, said it's not really about being better than anyone else on the issue.
"The purpose is not to differentiate yourself on that factor," he said. "Everyone should promote gender equality in advertising. Differentiate yourself in creativity."
Pritchard hit back at the notion that Cannes, or the industry in general, is getting sick of talking about gender equality or new initiatives around it.
Earlier this year, when he proposed talking about gender equality for a second year in a row at Cannes, he got pushback from the Festival of Creativity in favor of addressing something new. Yet his panel, also including Live Media Founder Tina Brown, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg and Madonna Badger, principal of Badger & Winters, drew a packed and enthusiastic crowd.
"The World Economic Forum indicates we've fallen back to 2008 levels of workplace participation for women and the level of diversity in industries overall," Pritchard said in an interview. "That indicates whether we've talked about it or not, we need more action."
The 20 representatives at Thursday's Cannes meeting indeed did agree on a very general action plan. Early steps include developing a code of conduct and a "clear and accountable measurement system" on both the gender portrayals in advertising and how reformed advertising is affecting global attitudes on gender issues, with the aim of having measurable progress by 2020, Santos said. The group will also monitor how advertising that's progressive on gender issues aids growth, Santos said, and focus on how companies can "hire the right talent by having a more balanced slate when interviewing, balanced groups and teams."