How feminism became a great way to sell stuff
It happens to Guardian readers, too: feminist fatigue™ – a debilitating condition that starts with mild exhaustion in the face of recurring debates about reproductive rights and discrimination and escalates to a crippling inability to decide whether the length of your pubic hair is reactionary or revolutionary. But don’t worry, ladies, help is at hand … albeit from unusual sources.
After decades of being berated for objectifying women, adland is leaning in to the debate on women’s rights with unprecedented enthusiasm. From Pantene’s attack on double standards in the workplace to Dove’s recent real beauty experiments, the last few months has seen an unusual spate of adverts with female-empowerment messages, as marketers realise that feminism is more than just a word with a lot of syllables: it’s a great way to sell stuff.
If you know your Bechdel from your Butler but were naive enough to imagine that feminism wasn’t a marketer’s issue, all this can be pretty confusing. So here’s a handy guide to the brave new world of consumer-friendly feminism:
1. Pseudo-psychoanalytical, sad-soundtrack based feminism
One of the earliest pioneers of feminist advertising was Dove. While you might think of the Unilever-owned brand as simply soap with ¼ moisturising cream, it’s so much more than that. It’s basically the Emmeline Pankhurst of personal hygiene.
After finding early success demonstrating that “real women” could be in adverts too, Dove has been furthering its self-imposed mission as the champion of women’s self-esteem via a combination of Science + YouTube + Sad Background Music. First, it got women to describe themselves as ugly, then it got an FBI-trained sketch artist to show these women that they weren’t as ugly as they initially imagined. This heartwarming cinematic journey garnered hundreds of millions of views and a ton of advertising awards.
Dove then followed up on this success with more dubious psychological experiments. In its most recent marketing effort, entitled Patches, the brand gives a number of women a “beauty patch,” which makes them feel … beautiful! And … amazing! The beauty patch works miracles and the women in the video are filled with confidence to a backdrop of sad classical music. But, here’s the twist: that beauty patch was a placebo. Those women were duped! The confidence they had came from an inner poise that money can’t buy. (Although, you know, a reasonably priced bar of soap with ¼ moisturising cream is a good first step.)
While Dove may be getting accolade after accolade in adland, not everybody is buying this washed-down brand of corporate feminism. A parody of Dove’s Real Beauty efforts highlights how the brand tears women down before it builds them back up. “You fell for our weird psychology experiment and it showed you you’re not actually a hideous monster so where’s our Nobel Peace Prize or whatever?”, concludes the video, which is quickly going viral. Pseudo-psychoanalytical, sad-soundtrack based feminism: not as legit as you may think.
2. Sexism-positive feminism
This centres on the idea that sexism is actually an essential component of empowered women’s identities. Like all truly profound ideologies, this sounds like total nonsense at first glance. But if you take a second and third glance (and maybe drink a lot at the same time), it makes perfect sense. Sort of.
In any case, the advertising team at Snickers seems to think so. Last month the chocolate bar brand released an ad showing a construction crew harassing passing women with compliments instead of catcalls, which was supposed to be empowering. “You’re not you when you’re hungry,” explains the tagline. “You’re not a feminist when you’re trying to use everyday sexism to sell a chocolate bar,” the film might more truthfully have said.
3. Radically literal feminism
Copywriter 1: [Reading off creative brief] So we need to portray a strong, empowered woman in a way that resonates with the multifaceted, multidimensional, multitasking woman that is driving today’s she-conomy and searching for ad-her-tising that truly understands who she is.
Copywriter 2: Got it. How about something with a woman wearing a business suit and boxing gloves? Or a woman with cleavage and a power drill?
Copywriter 1: Hmm, I like where that’s going. But how about we go further and show a really, like, really, strong woman. Like…a bodybuilder. Like … [pauses to Google hot female bodybuilders]… Danica Patrick?
Copywriter 2: Godammit, Copywriter 1, you’re a genius.
And thus, the GoDaddy SuperBowl commercial was born.
So there you have it. A new and improved approach to gender equality, packed with 83% more cliches, 92% more hashtags, and 103% less meaning. Nine out of 10 people in a statistically insignificant sample group say they prefer it.
[Black woman gesturing that she doesn’t know via Shutterstock]