"Feminist" Advertisements: Exploitation or Progress?
Peggy Orenstein’s “The Way We Live Now” piece in New York Times Magazine a couple months ago explores what she calls the “empowerment mystique,” or using themes of girl power to sell products that have nothing to do with promoting equality. She mentions several recent commercials by companies selling products unrelated to gender or discrimination, such as Verizon and Target, which send a message of empowerment for girls and women. This kind of ad, she claims, manipulates people to associate the company with sincerity and hopefulness. It is also a reflection of a society in which women hold the majority of jobs, and earn more bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctorates than men.
Orenstein draws a distinction between the Verizon ad, which shows a series of young women speaking proudly and vaguely about the unbiased nature of air... and a similar Nike commercial from the 90’s which showed girls describing the benefits of playing sports. The latter had a specific purpose—encouraging schools and parents to promote girls’ sports teams and clubs. It also used real facts and statistics, and the company has ties with organizations that promote equality for girls in sports. Clearly, Orenstein is taking a strong stand against such advertisements when they don’t support a specific cause or aren’t in line with the company’s actions. I understand part of her concern—it is disappointing to find yourself being inspired and moved by a commercial only to find out that it’s actually just promoting a cell phone company. It feels a little bit like someone is taking advantage of your feminist pride.
But personally, when I see an ad on TV that celebrates female empowerment or individualism, it makes me feel good. Not just because there’s a girl on the screen telling me how us women are super cool, but because the existence of these ads indicates that feminism, however dulled down and commercialized, sells. In a world where every other ad features a half-naked woman selling clothing or a man making suggestive comments about hamburgers, I’m okay that people are trying to exploit my feminist instincts. Whether intentionally or not, these ads contribute to the rising acceptance of girl power in women and men. Shouldn’t we be happy that feminism, or whatever less controversial word we’re using these days, is “in”? Orenstein has a right to be frustrated at the advertising industry’s constant manipulation of human nature, but there’s nothing new about that. What is new is a society in which a company like Dove can advertise body lotion by telling us we’re all pretty enough without it.
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