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What to Make of “Female Empowerment” Marketing


You can’t miss the recent surge of ad campaigns with messages of female empowerment. It seems like a contemporary phenomenon, but Dove pioneered this movement ten years ago, launching its “Campaign for Real Beauty” in 2004. In its first pass at “real beauty” messaging, Dove deployed ads featuring women with bodies of all shapes and sizes in understated undergarments and minimal makeup, drastically different from the usual lingerie-clad, made-up model. After much acclaim (and press coverage), Dove continued its “real beauty” campaign, partnering with Annie Liebowitz to celebrate the beauty of aging women and eventually zeroing in on the need to help younger women and girls, and society at large, embrace more realistic standards of beauty. In 2010, Dove established “The Dove Movement For Self-Esteem,” which, according to the campaign’s website, “delivers self-esteem education to young people (primarily girls) aged 8-17 years through lessons in schools, workshops for youth groups, and online resources for parents.”  

It’s not surprising that other brands have begun to incorporate pro-women messages into their ads, especially in our post-Lean In world. As conversations about “having it all” continue to trend in major publications, and large, pop-culture heavyweights like Google, Twitter, and Facebook publicly commit to diversifying their workforces, brands are trying to tap into the viral potential of female-empowering messages. In fact, many brands have drastically altered their messaging and established philanthropic, educational platforms to back up their efforts. CoverGirl, for example, launched its #GirlsCan ad, which featured celebrity spokeswomen discussing (and rejecting) the limitations that were placed on them as young girls. CoverGirl accompanied this effort with a pledge to donate $5 million over five years to nonprofits that help women “break barriers and blaze trails.”

Even brands that aren’t typically perceived as “women’s products” are injecting girl-power messages into their ads. Verizon, for example, recently aired an ad addressing the timely topic of why we don’t see more women in STEM, telling parents to encourage their daughters to pursue science and math. The video has been viewed over three million times on YouTube.  

As a marketer, feminist, and a parent, I have conflicting emotions about these ads. My immediate reaction is to celebrate any brand that chooses to point out the contradictory, unrealistic, and maladaptive messages the media send to young boys and girls. I’m baffled that any girl can come out of childhood—bedecked as it is in ruffled, pink princess dresses—with a healthy understanding of gender equality. But, as a marketer and a feminist media critic, I have to be skeptical. These brands are, after all, trying to make money and sell products. At what point does the strategy become manipulative, not innovative?

The viral success of these ads will surely result in wave of copycats. And, despite their obvious pro-women message, female consumers need to approach these ads critically.

First, we should consider the historical context and keep these ads’ predecessors in mind. “There’s a long history of marketers making women feel strong in order to get them to buy things,” says Morra Aarons-Mele, founder of Women Online, a boutique PR and marketing agency that helps brands, mostly nonprofit and cause-marketing, connect with women through digital marketing programs. Think of Virginia Slims print ads from the 1990s (just twenty years ago), which highlighted women’s professional success to sell slimmer, “female-friendly” cigarettes. While it may not be fair to equate Phillip Morris’s ads with those of Dove and Verizon (Phillip Morris was, after all, both clearly pandering and selling a lethal product), it’s important to realize that marketers have long been skilled at leveraging social causes for their brands.

And while we can celebrate the underlying message of many of these ads, consumers should take a close look at the brand, parent company, and ad agency behind them. Dove, for example, created a campaign that ostensibly targeted art directors and photo retouchers, admonishing them for over-photoshopping female models. Meanwhile, another Unilever brand, Axe, promotes itself with ads like these:



Kat Gordon, advertising veteran and founder of the 3% Conference, an annual event and online community that educates agencies and brands about the gender gap in advertising, points out, “These ads have nothing to do with the metrics that truly matter to people who care about empowering women. That information—how many women are on your board, do you have a pay gap, do you offer maternity leave—doesn’t make for good advertising. But true change doesn’t happen in ads, it happens in boardrooms and paychecks.”

I can’t fault brands for keeping the spotlight on these important cultural issues, but many ads employing female-empowering messages, especially the beauty brands, seem to be simply couching their backward-thinking messages in new packaging. For example, Pantene’s “Not Sorry” ad, which has over 13 million views on YouTube, tells women to stop apologizing, assert their strength, and refuse to downplay their opinions and expertise—a meaningful and important message. But it all comes back to beauty, as the description of the ad explains, “When you're strong on the inside, you shine on the outside. And that's a beautiful thing.” Along the same lines, Dove’s “Movement for Self-Esteem” seemed to be singularly based on helping young girls boost confidence by making them “feel beautiful”: the brand supported its program with a survey concluding that only 4 percent of women worldwide considered themselves beautiful and, of the 1,200 girls ages 10-17 in the survey, about 11 percent of girls felt comfortable using the word beautiful to describe their appearances. I’m inclined to say “So what? What percent of those girls would use the word smart, fierce, talented, etc, to describe themselves? That seems like a more important measurement of their confidence.”

My point is this: Dove and Pantene continue to equate the pursuit of beauty with the pursuit of happiness and confidence, making a direct connection with exterior appearances and interior fulfillment. According to their ads, “looking confident” and “feeling beautiful” are really half the battle. A woman’s appearance is still a critical component of her strength and authority, and there’s nothing empowering about that message.

It’s important to remember that the ad industry itself is the source of many of these detrimental stereotypes and conceptions of women. Jean Kilbourne’s ongoing study and documentary series, Killing Us Softly, which explores how ads use women’s bodies to sell products—often equating women’s bodies to the product itself—is testimony to the pervasive sexism in ads. So, while I am thrilled by brands’ sudden focus on the ridiculous labels, prejudices, and double standards we face, it would be truly revolutionary for agencies and parent companies to take responsibility for the role they’ve played in creating the problem that some of them are now trying to solve (and using to sell products).

Beauty brands, in particular, seem to be toeing the line between empowering and hypocritical, while other brands’ pro-female messages come across as more authentic. Always, for example, created an ad that calls attention to the “self-esteem cliff” that girls tend to encounter at puberty, asking when (and why) the phrases “hit like a girl” and “run like a girl” become pejorative. This ad, which features real young women, firmly aligns with Always’ product: they are selling a product closely related to puberty while exploring an issue directly related to pubescent girls. Additionally, Always has long been invested in research and educational materials relating to young women, so their current foray into the viral video realm isn’t a drastic pivot.

And Always isn’t the only “feminine product” that’s getting this right. HelloFlo, which provides care packages of tampons, pads, and other self-care items for girls in puberty and post-partum women, has launched two wildly successful (and viral) ads, Camp Gyno and First Moon Party. Naama Bloom, founder of HelloFlo, explains that developing an authentic tone that echoed that of the women and girls actually using her products was of supreme importance: “When you talk about this stuff with your girlfriends, you laugh about it.” Capturing that humor and the straight talk that occurs between real women was the goal of the videos—and they nail it. And while HelloFlo isn’t at all affiliated with Always’ “Like a Girl” Campaign (though HelloFlo is sponsored by Always parent company P&G), Bloom points out that Always’ ads are, like hers, successful because their pro-girl message is genuinely aligned with their product. “When it’s done right, it can be hugely powerful.”

As ad agencies and brands increasingly realize that marketing to women shouldn’t be a “side project” or subset of a larger effort, we’ll see more campaigns like these. Ad makers will likely experiment with a number of tactics, from outright philanthropy to subtler efforts. Our job as female consumers is to hold their feet to the fire. We should demand that these organizations match their external efforts with more transparency and accountability about their internal efforts to improve equality, and we should refuse to let our cultural battle for equality become a formulaic selling strategy.





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