‘Femvertising’ abstracted by beauty companies for profit
A new generation of advertising has hit the airwaves: campaigns by beauty giants like Dove and Pantene showing women and girls in a positive and uplifting light. Consumers and especially women, should be weary of the new era of advertising targeting the female demographic. These advertisements may be undermining the struggles women face today, by co-opting an important political movement.
The Shriver Report found that the most pressing issues facing women are homelessness, violence, discrimination, the “whittling down” of Roe v. Wade and little access to reliable child care, and the increasing wage gap. While shedding what consumers know as traditional advertising, such as happy, skinny women frolicing about, it’s unclear whether this new ‘femvertising’ (a.k.a feminist advertising) which aims to empower women, is really any better. Note, that in both Pantene and Dove ad campaigns, women are still traditionally good looking, with little diversity.
Following WWI, the United States was introduced to the first mainstream corporate propaganda. Edward Bernays, a public relations specialist for President Woodrow Wilson, created an advertising empire that is still affecting marketing today. One of the most striking anecdotes from his wildly successful career was the way in which he sold cigarettes. Prior to the post-war era, smoking cigarettes was an exclusive pastime of men and lower class women. Bernays rebranded the product by using the early feminist movement, calling the cigarettes ‘torches of freedom.’
Attractive bourgeois women were again the icons seen holding those torches. The idea was that women could show their liberation by claiming cigarettes as their own, and drumming up equality. Big cigarette companies did not really want women to be equal or liberated, they wanted Bernays to sell their cigarettes.
In the current era, half the population is still at a disadvantage to their male counterparts: they hold less corporate leadership positions and government positions, are at greater risk for violence and are more likely to fall below the poverty line according to a 2015 Huffington Post article. When Mary Sue from next door turns on her TV to see women of different shapes and skin tones instead of another Carls Jr. commercial, she is pleasantly surprised. Moreover, she might even be inclined to purchase a Dove beauty bar instead of her old stuff next time she’s at the store.
52 percent of women polled said that they “have bought a product because they liked how the brand and their advertising portrays women,”according to a survey conducted by She Knows.
For companies it is a smart economic decision to shift the demographic to consumers who are actually using their product. The way to do this is to hijack a movement, namely feminism, and conflate it with separate issues such as body image to make it appear as though they are advocating for a valiant cause.
“What marketplace feminism is focused on is not the same thing that the political and social movement known as feminism is focused on,” Carla Golden, professor of women and gender studies at Ithaca College said.
Commodifying of a movement, and selling products in which the buyer can feel good about because it is enacting some type of change, can only happen when the issue picked off has a quick fix.
For example, the Dove campaign has two very memorable ads: one where women are asked to describe themselves to a sketch artist, and another where strangers describe them. The person depicted by the stranger turns out to always be more beautiful, although she was conventionally pretty to begin with. The second ad features a naturally good-looking model being distorted by photoshop to appear even more gorgeous. At the end of both the result is the same: women felt generally better about themselves.
In a comment from their parent company Unilever’s customer service team, Dove’s costumer service team said:
“Dove is about fostering positive self esteem. It is committed to widening the current definition of beauty and inspiring more women to believe in and enjoy their own beauty,” said Dove’s customer service team.
It is hard to argue with creating a utopic beauty ideal that fosters self-esteem. The feminist movement has traditionally attempted to mitigate body issues that women have faced.
However, “feminism isn’t about what you look like,” Golden said. “It’s about valuing women.”
Just as Bernays made the non-sequitur between smoking and female liberation, the same is being manufactured between gender specific beauty products that enhance appearance and the reformation of popular culture biases towards female beauty standards. Instead of combating underrepresentation, discrimination or any other points on the list of pressing issues, women must first deconstruct the way they look.
Joslyn Brenton, professor of sociology at Ithaca College, explains how products might be marketed if the ideology of the feminist movement was actually in mind.
“In a truly just world, we might expect Dove to say, ‘Women, you are lovely the way you are! You do not need any product, certainly not ours. Go be yourselves,’’ Brenton said. “As you can see, this form of genuine acceptance of women as people would put a lot of companies out of business.”
When the feminine hygiene company Always released the #likeagirl campaign, the message was slightly different than their counterparts’. Instead of focusing on the way a woman appears, the campaign centers around the way women are perceived within the realm of physical strength. The ad features girls and women alongside men and boys demonstrating and discussing what it means to do anything “like a girl” (i.e. running, hitting etc.) The goal is to challenge traditional connotations of weakness and inability.
“We are taught to believe that acting masculine or feminine is in our biology,” Brenton said.
Yet, Always is still “co-opting an important political and social movement” as Bitch Media cofounder Andi Ziesler writes in We Were Feminists Once. She articulates how progressive advertising for women offers quick solutions that in the short term make consumers feel good, revealing the repeated pattern of false-subversion.
Instead of a complete overhaul of society, as feminists were fighting for back in the ‘60s and ‘70s and then again in the ‘90s, the current movement, if we can call it that, does not “challenge beliefs…so much as it offers nips and tucks,” Zeisler wrote.
When Pantene’s #ShineStrong commercial shows a woman overcoming labels like “selfish” and “bossy” by literally holding her head up high and walking over them, it is better than continuing with the status quo. It should not be confused with the ongoing fight to better conditions for women. Let’s not forget the ways in which campaigns of this nature have been framed and are continuing to be framed: conventionally pretty women selling a product that will allow you to call yourself a feminist.
Alanna Vagianos, writer for the Huffington post who frequently discusses women’s issues including the relationship between women and the media, said that while separate from the struggle for equality, the momentum shift may not be all bad.
“‘Femvertising’ is better than nothing at all. What we see on our TVs is so much better than old Super Bowl or Carls Jr. ads,” Vagianos said.
“We have made progress as a culture because of advertising’s commodification of feminism (although it pains me to admit it). I’d rather see a young teen girl watch a Dove ad than a Carl Jr. ad.”
As female empowerment and feminism rise in popularity, companies jump on the bandwagon to promote their products. The problem is two-fold, with an innate focus on looks, and a commodifying of feminism. Buyers beware: improved ad campaigns do not equate to a more just society. The best way to truly mitigate existing societal problems will not be by buying Dove or Pantene products.
“Feminism is not just a brand. It’s not just a thing you declare yourself to be, it’s about the work you do, and the commitments you have to a struggle for greater equality,” Golden said.
Anna Lamb is a second-year journalism major who would rather not use shampoo or conditioner than to succumb to the corporate beauty overlords. You can reach them at [email protected].