2017: The year in “empowerment marketing”
In 2014, I wrote about “female empowerment” marketing — a trend in advertising that I now recognize as the first swell of the “empowertizing” trend, presently in full force. While Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty” and Always’ “Like a Girl” campaigns seemed novel three years ago, it’s now difficult for me to identify a female-focused brand that is not using messages of female empowerment in some way. Every brand is hopping on the female empowerment bandwagon: Audi’s 2017 Super Bowl ad argued for equal pay for equal work (and earned the company, with its very male C-suite, some backlash), Dior produced a $710 T-shirt that proclaimed “We should all be feminists,” and, of course, at the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards show, Beyoncé did this:
Of course, since 2014, a great deal has changed. Beginning with the Women’s March and culminating in the #MeToo movement, 2017 has been a pivotal year for gender politics. (For an in-depth look at how brands are using and abusing feminist ideology, I recommend Andi Zeisler’s book We Were Feminists Once.) So, it’s worth asking, how have brands responded to the shift in gender politics in 2017? Are we truly seeing a response to the reality of evolving cultural values, or simply a shallow extension of the “empowertizing” trend that started several years ago?
If we examine major brands’ advertising efforts in 2017, a few clear patterns emerge:
First, brands are becoming more political across the board. Traditionally, brands have avoided political statements, operating under the principle that alienating buyers with different political beliefs was too risky. Many companies, and their executive teams, are abandoning the tradition of remaining apolitical and instead are articulating clear public stances on political and cultural issues, particularly those relating to LGBT rights, gender equality, the environment, and immigration. Just a few weeks ago, Patagonia dedicated its home page to protesting the president’s decision to reduce the size of two national monuments, and earlier in the year many CEOs publicly condemned Trump’s travel ban targeting Muslims. Several high-profile CEOs, including Kenneth Frazier of Merck and Ken Plank of Under Armour, condemned Trump’s response to the murder of an activist in Charlottesville and stepped down from their roles on an advisory council. Smirnoff even called Trump out overtly in a print ad that made headlines.
Corporate leadership teams’ willingness to “get political” could be a response to left-leaning employees’ encouragement to do so. An Economist study found that most large companies are headquartered in districts that Hillary Clinton won, and employees of large firms typically give more to Democratic candidates. They could also be positioning themselves to win the hearts and minds of future buyers, who are more likely to switch to a brand because of its association with political or cultural cause.
This willingness to get political has seemingly resulted in a bit more self-awareness from brands about gender stereotyping. In June of 2016, Unilever announced its “Unstereotype” campaign, intended to “banish stereotypical portrayals of gender in advertising and all brand led content.” In June of this year, Unilever doubled down on that mission with its “Unstereotype Alliance,” inviting other brands to join their effort. (Facebook, Google, and Alibaba, among others, have done so). Perhaps the most striking result of the Unstereotype campaign is the shift in ads from the Axe brand, from some of the packaged goods industry’s most sexist ads (e.g., this “Dumpster Diver” spot) to the “Is It OK for Guys?” ads that question stereotypical views of masculinity.
Brands outside of the Unilever behemoth have also produced powerful ads in 2017 that challenge gender stereotypes, including Nike’s ad with Arab athletes and GE’s ad asking “What If Millie Dresselhaus, Female Scientist, Was Treated Like a Celebrity?”
It’s clear that many brands in the technology field — GE, Google, Verizon, etc. — are latching on to messages related to women in STEM. But beauty and retail brands, as well as the female-focused media outlets that rely on their ads for revenue, still struggle with reconciling empowerment messages with their actual products. Dove received backlash earlier this year for an ad that showed a black woman removing her clothing and turning into a white woman, a confused attempt at celebrating diversity. Kellogg also faced social media uproar after it debuted an ad that boldly proclaimed “Women Eat,” as if that were a feminist message. Not to mention the slew of run-of-the-mill sexist ads that ran this year, including, but not limited to, Yellowtail’s “Do You Want to Touch My Roo?” Super Bowl ad and Audi China’s ad that compares choosing a bride to choosing a car. Meanwhile, gendered messaging in marketing and packaging continues to hold strong. Degree Deoderant (owned by Unilever, in fact) still sells “Motionsense: Sexy Intrigue” product to women and “Motionsense: Adventure” to men.
So, while we’ve made progress in 2017, the mixed bag of results begs the question — are brands, and their advertisements, an effective conduit for social change? And, furthermore, are consumers expecting brands to serve that purpose? To some degree, I think liberal Americans’ openness to corporations’ embrace of left-leaning values is possible only because of our overwhelming frustration with the government. In any other political era, I’d imagine these messages would be met with more cynicism. We’re craving moral leadership, and we’re taking it in any form offered.
Ultimately, companies are still trying to sell products and services, not — or, if we’re being generous, while — they try to change the world. As informed consumers, we shouldn’t necessarily expect brands to champion social good in each and every ad campaign but should at the very least continue to demand that they sell products in a way that is inclusive and respectful, not demeaning or objectifying.
And while it’s admirable that some try to use their platform for good, the #MeToo movement demonstrates two important messages: First, people, not corporations, are the best channel for real social change. Second, the advertising industry is rife with examples of sexual misconduct, so it’s not surprising that, like the media industry, it struggles to produce authentic messages of equality when the people in power often seem to be directly opposed to it.
The bottom line is that until the makeup of the leadership of the corporations behind these advertisements changes, we will see only incremental improvement. In 2018, I predict that we’ll continue to see brands directly addressing socially charged issues like immigration, diversity, and global warming, but moving away from outright criticisms of gender inequality. Instead, brands will (smartly so) simply try to make the representations of women, men, and families in their ads less stereotypical.
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