From tear-jerking 60-second spots to cheeky satires to anthemic "girl power" commercials, women’s empowerment has become a common theme for modern advertising. Now more than ever—as the 2016 election, the Women’s March and the #MeToo movement have pivoted the cultural conversation—brands are eager to jump on the feminist bandwagon.
But these surface-level engagements with "women’s empowerment" have also been accused of hijacking or appropriating feminism—after all, feminism is not just a glossy packaging to add onto the tail end of an ad campaign. That's why those of us in marketing and advertising who want to make true feminist content must more closely examine our approach to gender politics.
In lieu of a clear set of do’s and don’ts, here are some questions that those of us in marketing or advertising should probably be asking ourselves.
Does this content responsibly represent and acknowledge the diversity of women’s experiences?
There is no singular experience of womanhood. Consequently, we must ask ourselves which experiences we make visible in our advertisements. Too often, "feminist" messaging focuses on straight, cisgendered, white women and asserts this experience as universal.
Look at the cautionary tale of Shea Moisture, who debuted a campaign aimed at ending "Hair Hate." The video—which was pulled after backlash—was accused of whitewashing the natural hair movement. The scripting and casting of the commercial generalized "Hair Hate" as something that impacts all women equally. But in their effort to broadly capitalize on the popular messages of self-acceptance and self-love, Shea Moisture failed to represent the black women who originally championed this cause. In Shea Moisture’s apology, the brand acknowledged that research shows a "majority of people, regardless of race and gender, hold some bias towards women of color based on their textured or natural hair," and stated, "We are keenly aware of the journey that WOC face."
This is why feminism—including feminism in advertising—must always be intersectional. Advocating for women’s rights and championing the ideals of women’s empowerment must include an understanding of how gender intersects with other identities, such as race, sexual orientation, class, ability or religion. Feminism is about ending the oppression of women, and this oppression is never one-dimensional. Those of us aiming to make socially-conscious content must continually acknowledge and work to surmount our own biases and areas of privilege. Any attempt to join the work of women’s empowerment must be partnered with an understanding that womanhood is not a singular, generalized experience.
Does this advertisement actually send a substantive message?
Many advertisers want to embrace women’s empowerment as a trend without being divisive or taking a concrete stance. Ironically, these efforts often end up facing the most backlash. Why? The shallow use of feminist language and imagery in advertisements run the risk of depoliticizing and undercutting a powerful and necessary movement, and audiences are quick to call out the advertisers.
This insistence on being noncontroversial often leads to relatively absurd content that fails to make a meaningful statement and instead provokes outrage. Dove UK’s attempt to create "Real Beauty Bottles" was a fluff campaign that generated backlash. It included a limited edition run of body wash bottles in six different shapes intended to match women’s body types. At best, this tactic seemed silly, at worst, patronizing and offensive. And social media users were ready to ridicule them.
However, Dove framed the bottles as a heroic feminist move: "Our six exclusive bottle designs celebrate this diversity: just like women, we wanted to show that our iconic bottle can come in all shapes and sizes, too." The brand’s agency, Ogilvy PR in London, noted in a (now deleted) post that it was one of those "rare ideas which condenses decades of a brand’s legacy in two seconds."
Ultimately, the backlash proved that the effort felt more gimmicky than profound. The idea to create "Real Beauty Bottles" was not rooted in the desires or needs of actual women. When brands engage with feminism and social movements on a surface level—devoid of meaningful messages rooted in human needs and human rights—their efforts ring hollow.
Does the brand stand by its feminist message in practice?
When engaging with feminism, the risks are real and the stakes are high. We don’t have the luxury of using feminism as just a "cool" or "buzzy" angle. The pay gap between men and women persists. The pay gap between white, non-Hispanic men and women of color is even more dire. America’s current administration is defunding reproductive healthcare and threatening the rights of transgender youths. And as evidenced by the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment remains a widespread threat to women’s professional and personal lives.
While it’s important to recognize the limitations of advertising in creating social change; advertising will never be a substitute for collective political action. It is also crucial to acknowledge its potential. Advertising reaches masses of critical audiences and shapes cultural conversations. So the potential for advertisements to bring inclusivity into the mainstream is strong. Incorporating feminist messages into advertisements can not only do the the important work of making feminism accessible to a bigger audience, it can turn the tide from historically one-dimensional representations of women. Acknowledging this potential should encourage us in the industry to not settle for the bare minimum. Rather, it should compel us to take this influence seriously.
And that may mean an internal audit of our own practices is in order. A secondary, albeit necessary question to ask ourselves is whether our internal operations are consistent with the feminist messaging we put forth into the world. After all, the power of the messaging is diluted when the advertiser’s practices don’t match up. Take the "Fearless Girl" installation on Wall Street: The financial services firm who commissioned the now-famous statue has been accused of discriminating against and underpaying women. Too often, there’s a vast difference between the public-facing, provocative "women’s empowerment" campaigns and what happens within the companies who make them.
There must be a connection between the messages we distribute and our industry practices. If we are truly concerned with gender equality, it is irresponsible, if not unethical, for our campaigns to appropriate the language and symbols of the feminist movement without contributing to the movement meaningfully. Unfortunately, it seems much easier to find failed attempts at feminism than to point to any company that’s doing it "right."
But there is hope that we are pacing toward a better reality. Organizations like the 3% Movement are addressing the severe lack of gender diversity within creative leadership. Constant backlash against brands with inconsistent practices has forced a more thoughtful and committed approach to feminist practices. The collective uproar around #MeToo and #TimesUp is compelling companies to reflect on their responsibility to tackle the gender pay gap and sexual harassment.
We can do a lot better. We must.
Sara Reinis is a Creative Strategist at Vox Creative.