For our Global Societies project, reporters around the world will be writing about societal problems, sustainability and development in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. The series will include features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts looking behind the curtain of globalization. The project is generously funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
In the middle of April, several women holding posters suddenly appeared at several intersections in the Ugandan capital city of Kampala. They called themselves the "Association of Wives,” but the demands they were making of their husbands didn’t sound particularly feminist. One called for an increase in allowance money allotted to wives from their husbands. Others read: "Side dishes are destroying our marriage!” and, "Wives also deserve trips to Dubai” They complained: "Our husbands are no longer eating at home.”
Atuki Turner saw images from the event online and suspected that something wasn’t quite right. Turner is a feminist activist in Uganda, and she tends to be supportive of women who protest for their own causes. But she had never come across anything like this before. "I wanted to voice criticism immediately, because these demands were really strange,” Turner recalls. But she hesitated nonetheless. She didn’t want to publicly stab the women in the back.
Now, reporting from DER SPIEGEL has revealed that this supposed women’s rights protest was actually a guerilla marketing campaign staged by corporate giant Unilever. Over the course of several days, the campaign feigned a women’s movement, serving up sexist stereotypes to promote the Royco brand, a flavoring powder popular in Africa. Unilever owns 400 brands worldwide that are sold in over 100 countries. The company has drawn pushback in the past for falling back on outdated gender roles, but rarely has a campaign been as sexist as the one in Uganda.
A spokesman for the police in Kampala says: "The action was registered with us as an advertising event for Royco. But then suddenly these women with their posters showed up.” The officers took the supposed activists into custody and, according to media reports, they spent 20 minutes at the police station. DER SPIEGEL has learned, however, that even this confinement was pre-arranged with the police so that the campaign would attract additional attention – an extremely cynical approach in a country where government opponents regularly face arbitrary arrest.
By then, though, the apparent goal of the PR campaign had long been achieved: Several media outlets reported on the supposed protest and the hashtag #getmorefromyourhusband began making the rounds. The issue went viral: Uganda was suddenly discussing whether housewives should get more "kameeza money.” Kameeza is a local term for a kind of pocket money that husbands put on their wives’ nightstands so they can buy themselves something.
Attempts to contact the organizers of the "protests” ended up with a PR agency. The employee sounded audibly annoyed, and she refused to answer any questions. Please leave the client out of it, she said, contritely.
Two days after the staged protests came the next act in the sexist performance. The alleged protestors organized a "women’s conference” with an ambiguous announcement: The secret of marital bliss was to be revealed. Ultimately, that revelation was an oversized can of beef Royco.
A Ugandan television station reported live and posted quotes from the alleged women’s conference on Twitter. Some examples:
"Women should learn how to cook. Put Royco Mchuzi mix in your food. You won’t complain about your husbands not coming back home.”
"If we want our husbands home, let’s put Royco in their food. They will come back.”
A man also spoke: "If you really want us home, give us respect, give me peace and a good meal.”
DER SPIEGEL reached the moderator of the "women’s conference,” Karitas Kasirimbi, on the phone. She defended the event: "It's just that Royco triggered that conversation and had people going out there. But it's real women's problems happening in our society,” she says. Lydia Ndagire could only shake her head. She heads the Resilient Women Organization, which works to push for women’s rights in Uganda. "Women are expected to solicit money from their husbands instead of looking for their own job. And Unilever wants to use these stereotypes to do dirty business too.”
Atuki Turner sees things similarly. Her organization, Mifumi, takes care of victims of domestic violence. "This campaign isn’t just sinister and cynical, but also dangerous,” she argues. Because countless physical attacks on women in Uganda stem from conflicts over food – that’s enough to trigger abuse. "The advertising campaign is backing perpetrators of domestic violence. Unilever should be ashamed and stop this immediately,” Turner says.
But even after the supposed women’s conference, Unilever happily carried on. In the days that followed, posters appeared everywhere in Kampala showing a smiling woman in an apron in front of the perfect home: "Get more from your husband. The secret is Royco.” A Ugandan online news site quoted the national head of Unilever, Joanita Menya, as saying: "We can assure you that women who cook with Royco bring more than just the family back home but also create grateful husbands. If you didn’t know how to have your husband increase the kameeza money, now you know the secret.”
Following a written inquiry from DER SPIEGEL, Unilever quickly began trying to control the damage. The press office in London declined to answer specific questions, instead providing a general statement: "We are very sorry that the campaign perpetuated stereotypical gender roles. We should have done things differently and we will review this in order to prevent it happening again.” It also stated that the campaign would immediately be halted.
Unilever had pledged in 2016 to refrain from using sexist stereotypes in its advertising campaigns and called on its competitors to do the same. Unilever’s marketing boss, Keith Weed, told the BBC at the time that the company had a responsibility to work for change "on a broader social level.” It would seem that the company has failed to deliver on that promise.
This piece is part of the Global Societies series. The project runs for three years and is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
The Global Societies series involves journalists reporting in Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe on injustices, societal challenges and sustainable development in a globalized world. A selection of the features, analyses, photo essays, videos and podcasts, which originally appear in DER SPIEGEL’s Foreign Desk section, will also appear in the Global Societies section of DER SPIEGEL International. The project is initially scheduled to run for three years and receives financial support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.