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When Feminism Becomes a Marketing Tool

Is it okay to use feminism to sell products? Commence mixed feelings in 3-2-1...

goldieblox books

This piece was originally published on Beacon. It was republished here with permission.

Organizations like The Representation Project and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media have been documenting and speaking out against the problems with female representation in media – both its lack and the damaging, limiting nature of what little representation there is – for some time, criticizing things like sexist Super Bowl ads and the lack of female leads in Hollywood films.


Lately, it feels like some progress is being made. Before last year’s Super Bowl, GoDaddy pledged an end to their string of sexist ads (though as Time Magazine says, “[T]he improvement feels like too little too late. After 10 years of Super Bowl ads featuring scantily clad girls (the first one premiered at the 2005 Super Bowl), GoDaddy has built up a reputation. They don’t need salacious ads for attention anymore…”), and many of our biggest-grossing films have female protagonists (Frozen, the Hunger Games franchise, Gravity, Inside Out, etc). Feminism seems to have made such a dent that companies now see being anti-sexism as a way to sell products! It’s almost as if women are a majority of the population and it would be a smart business move to market products with their interests in mind, or something!

There have been a slew of marketing campaigns that have tried to do this. One was the Dove “Real Beauty” Campaign, which included the Dove Real Beauty Sketches ad. Women were asked to describe themselves to a sketch artist for one version of a sketch. Then the sketch artist asked another random woman who had met the subject to describe her and did a sketch based on that. The women were shocked that the sketches based on other people’s descriptions were more flattering and “attractive.”

When I first saw the Dove Real Beauty Sketches ad, I was touched by the fact that these women were finally able to see themselves in a positive light through the eyes of others. I think this is something all of us, no matter our gender, could stand to see, because all of us are generally better than we think we are. Yet this ad focused specifically on physical beauty – something that women are told every day matters most. Women were crying because they learned that their nose wasn’t as crooked as they thought, or that they weren’t as fat as they thought, for Goodness’ sake. And while, yes, everyone wants to feel attractive, there is a disproportionate amount of pressure put on women to be attractive by the media and by society. A man would never be grateful to the point of tears to find out that they were more attractive than they thought, because they’ve been taught that they have more going for them than just looks.

The lesson? Women are their own worst critics, (Also, their self-worth is tied up in their appearance) and it’s their job to stop (not, God forbid, the job of media, which HAS HELPED TO BRAINWASH US INTO HAVING THESE FEELINGS OF INADEQUACY IN THE FIRST PLACE). As one of the women in the spot says, “I have a lot of work to do.”

Maybe. But that’s only part of the equation. The other part is that corporations and media outlets have a lot of work to do.

Not to be left out, Pantene’s #ShineStrong campaign put out an ad that focused on the double standard inherent in labels placed on confident women who work hard (“bossy,” “selfish,” “show-off”) as opposed to men who do the same (“boss,” “dedicated,” “confident”). The ad encouraged women to #ShineStrong (and apparently one way to do that is by washing your hair with Pantene, rather than – I don’t know – getting a Masters Degree), and again put the onus on them to not “let labels hold [them] back,” while not acknowledging that beauty companies are a big reason why women focus so much on their looks as their only asset, which leads to the labels this ad is warning against.

These ads are the equivalent of your older sibling grabbing your hand, slapping you in the face with it over and over, then asking Why’re you hitting yourself? Why’re you hitting yourself? Why’re you hitting yourself?

Both of these ads highlighted things that I agree with. So why did they both rub me the wrong way? Because they were both for beauty products, marketing an industry designed to make money off of women’s insecurities.

I was skeptical when I saw the following ad from Always being bandied around my social media feeds, having started to grow weary of feminism being used simply as the latest marketing tool.

But I really, really loved this one. When I was a girl, it always confused me when people would say “you [insert verb] like a girl.” My thought would always be, Of course I do. I AM a girl. I wondered why they would go to the trouble of pointing out something so obvious. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized it was supposed to be insulting.

So, why didn’t this Always ad bother me in the same way the Dove and Pantene ads did?

This is an ad for Always feminine products, which is a line of products in which sex and gender actually play a role. And while it’s true that some people who need feminine hygiene products aren’t women (ie: trans men), and some women don’t need them at all (ie: menopausal cis women, trans women, etc), the majority of people being marketed to are cis women who will be using the products almost exclusively for half their lives, and will likely develop loyalty to a brand. A message like this is being spread by a product that was intended for women to begin with feels more organic and genuine to me.

Shampoo and soap, on the other hand, have nothing to do with sex or gender. And yet, men and women are marketed to very differently.

old spice

A friend of mine sent me this photo of the label of his Old Spice High Endurance anti-perspirant. Now, Old Spice ads tend to be overblown in order to be funny, and this is no exception. Old Spice is clearly poking fun of the fact that men are marketed to this way. They satirize marketing for men. But there are too many other grooming products geared toward men (check out the Axe website) that use words like “HIGH-OCTANE,” “SMASH,” “TORQUE,” “DESTROY,” and “POWER” very seriously. Or, as my friend put it, “language you’d expect to hear to describe either a bar fight or a pick-up truck.”

Most shampoos are marketed to women, because a woman’s hair is very much associated with how attractive people think she is. All the packaging is in pastel colors, and there’s an emphasis on how pleasant the product smells, and how pretty it can make you. The word choices are more passive, focusing on how how “Soft” their hair should be, how “Seductive” they can be, and how “Vibrant,” “Radiant,” and “Brilliant” their hair can look (check out the Herbal Essences website for comparison). In other words, women need the product’s help.

Shampoo is marketed to men (in white, blue, or black space-age-looking packaging) in a utilitarian way, sometimes with “FOR MEN” on the bottle (lest you’ve forgotten that men can also use shampoo) using powerful language to emphasize the forcefulness of the product and its user, making something as unisex as shampoo and soap sound more “adventurous” and “daring” and MASCULINE. It is a tool with which men can hold dominion over dirt. It’s as insulting as the female focus on appearance is sexist – as if the only way we can get men to wash themselves is by convincing them that doing so is part of a top-secret black ops mission.

Long story short, people of ALL genders need to groom themselves. All we need to know is that the shampoo will make our hair clean, and if a company is marketing shampoo differently to women, it’s harder to take any feminism in their ads seriously. You can’t tell women to #ShineStrong one minute, while contributing to their insecurities about their looks the next. But a product that is actually specifically for women reminding me of something we all can do to bring about an uptick in female self esteem? Sign me up.

The Always ad is also specific. It examines one derogatory phrase, the reclaiming of which can actually make a difference in the lives of women and girls.

The Pantene #ShineStrong campaign is vague and muddled. It demonstrates that double standards exist, but doesn’t point to how or why or what we can do about it, while at the same time promoting a product whose sole purpose is to make women look better. The confidence women need in order to free themselves from labels and double standards, suggests the ad, can be found in a small plastic bottle full of stuff that will make your hair nice, and soft, and vibrant.

The Always ad, on the other hand, picks apart one specific, pervasive phrase that actually does a lot of damage. This spot really hit me in the gut. Not because I was surprised by the adult actors “running like a girl” or “throwing like a girl” in such stereotypical ways, but because I was both heartened and saddened by the fact that when actual girls were asked to do the same thing, they did so with all of their strength. To them, doing something “like a girl” meant trying really hard. They reminded me of me when I was a girl, before I learned that being a girl is thought of as inherently not good enough. Which underlines the point that somewhere in puberty, girls get it hammered into them that being “like a girl” is less good than being like a boy, until they become the adults like the ones in this spot, who parrot generalizations about girls as if they’re fact.

Always like a girl

One way that we can improve the lives of women and girls is to stop using the phrase “like a girl” as a derogatory one. It’s a simple message, but one that’s not going to be easy to implement given how deeply ingrained that phrase is. Still, I like that Always is committed to instilling confidence in girls through things like educating with this ad and partnering with Ban Bossy. There’s obviously more to solving the problems of sexism and inequality than stuff like this – but as we learned in George Orwell’s 1984 (among other things), language is important. If you don’t have the words to express something, it’s impossible to have that idea at all. If we hear it, if we have the words for it, we can believe it.

Now for the big question: Is it OK to use feminism to sell products?

I’m obviously not the first to write about this. In fact, writer Elizabeth Plank compiled a great list of instances (including Dove and Pantene) where using feminism to sell products was patronizing and wrong.


Here’s what I think:

1) It depends on the product.
There’s a big difference between a shampoo, make-up, or a cleaning company using feminism to market to women, and a tampon or building set company (like Goldieblox) doing the same. There are products that contribute to double standards and inequality, and there are products that don’t. I’ll happily accept feminist marketing from the products that don’t; from products that are actually beneficial to women and girls.

2) It depends on the company’s commitment to feminism in general.
One ad campaign is great – but how about the rest of your advertising? Are you giving me feminism in one ad, only to advertise a different product by using sexist images? Dove and Axe are both owned by parent company, Unilever. So it’s all about “Real Women” in one set of commercials, but guys getting scantily-clad models as a reward for wearing your body spray in another? Get it together.

3) Targeting marketing to one gender doesn’t have to mean putting others down.
Mostly (but not entirely) due to social conditioning, men and women tend to think about things differently, so I understand the desire to market to a specific demographic by targeting your advertising. However, you don’t need to have men objectifying women in a commercial to sell your potato chips to men. You don’t have to have a husband look like an idiot and an incompetent father to sell your cleaning product to women.

4) In fact, gendered advertising doesn’t have to exist at all.
Both men and women like potato chips. Both men and women need to know how to clean a house or apartment. Both men and women need to groom themselves. So why gender your advertising? There’s a big difference between showing a man or a woman using a product and having the commercial appeal to all the “masculine” or “feminine” reasons why someone should buy something. How about, “It’s a good product. Use it, because it’s awesome and it does this thing really well and will make your life easier?” That appeals to people of all genders.

5) Inclusivity = More customers
Lastly, thinking outside the box when it comes to advertising means broadening your customer base. Advertising to “men” or “women” is so five minutes ago. Companies like Honey-Maid and Cheerios have realized that you don’t have to put anyone down or market specifically to one gender or one type of person to make your advertising specific and effective.

Ultimately, I’m not put off by companies trying to appeal to our emotions or values to sell product. I’m put off by companies advertising a product to one group by putting another group down, or advertising to a marginalized group by enticing them to buy something that’s bad for them under the guise of empowerment. And I plan on keeping an eye on them and calling them out when they do.

How about you? What ads do you love/hate with regard to feminism, or any other issue, and why? Comment below!

(Featured Image via Chez Mummy on Flickr)

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Teresa Jusino (she/her) is a native New Yorker and a proud Puerto Rican, Jewish, bisexual woman with ADHD. She's been writing professionally since 2010 and was a former TMS assistant editor from 2015-18. Now, she's back as a contributing writer. When not writing about pop culture, she's writing screenplays and is the creator of your future favorite genre show. Teresa lives in L.A. with her brilliant wife. Her other great loves include: Star Trek, The Last of Us, anything by Brian K. Vaughan, and her Level 5 android Paladin named Lal.