Why the Fearless Girl should make marketers nervous

Audiences can only be manipulated so many times before the waters of goodwill become polluted by cynicism.

A whiff of danger surrounded "Fearless Girl" when she first appeared on International Women’s Day. The statue had been erected in the dark of night, a sleight of hand that felt like the ballsiest of protest art. Observers could be forgiven for thinking Banksy had struck again.

Of course, the statue was officially sanctioned from the start. It was not quite art, but rather a clever advertising trick from McCann and State Street Global Advisors, a financial asset management firm that’s been criticized for a lack of female representation on its board.

And that makes it problematic.

"Feminism is about human decency, not moulding young girls in the image of a banking industry that bets against us, shorts us and then receives government bailout money," wrote Cara Marsh Sheffler in the Guardian.

As the industry fawns over the latest brave idea to elbow its way into culture, it’s worth stopping to ask whether we should be so quick to love this "Girl." Yes, the ROI is probably off the charts, and the creative team is surely clearing space on their trophy shelves. But the 4’2" statue represents a growing problem in the age of purpose fatigue: Audiences can only be manipulated so many times before the waters of goodwill become polluted by cynicism, and genuine effort becomes indistinguishable from opportunism.

Progressively positioned messaging has a history of mixed results. After Audi released a Super Bowl ad last month explicitly promoting equal pay for equal work, the initial positivity quickly soured. Viewers questioned whether the luxury auto brand was just hitching its go-kart to the pussy-hat wagon—never mind that the company’s board is six white guys.

Yet praise for "Fearless Girl" has been near-universal. It spurred tweets of support from the likes of Chelsea Clinton. She Runs It CEO Lynn Branigan said it was "feminism at its best." The Boston Globe called it—without a hint of irony—"perhaps the turning point of gender equality in corporate America."

But off to the side are critics questioning the installation’s motives and effectiveness. And while these voices may seem marginal from the vantage point of the board room, they are influential in the push for gender equality—women who help set the agenda for the priorities of the movement. "A lot of the organizing lately is oriented around symbolic gestures—a big march, a fancy statue, pink cat hats," said Adrielle Munger, a developing member of Redstockings, a radical feminist think tank. "I'm not really interested in symbolic wins for women. I want real victories."

This backlash against "corporate feminism" bears all the hallmarks of anti-astroturfing outrage. For a brand to legitimately call itself an ally, its actions must match its messaging. Authenticity is everything. Does "Know the power of women in leadership" square with the fact that the $2.4 trillion investment firm is run by a team that is more than 80 percent male and has paid fines multiple times for defrauding investors? The irony isn’t lost on the women who wage this fight every day.

"If you're talking about a financial company that has a history of fraud and screwing people over, a lot of those people are going to be women," said Jillian Steinhauer, art critic and senior editor at Hyperallergic. "If you think of feminism as a larger project of empowering women across all classes, not just women on Wall Street, it's kind of bullshit for them to be putting up this front of, ‘Oh, we love women. We want women leaders.’"

Others have taken to social to voice their true opinions amongst the praise.

Do tourists who line up throughout the day to pose beside the figure know she’s an ad? The bronze plaque that lies at her sneakered feet reads, "Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference." But how many observers know that "SHE" refers to State Street’s SHE Gender Diversity Index ETF, an investment commodity much like a mutual fund? (The 14 percent return over the last year is nice, but the fees are more than double that of SSGA’s S&P 500 fund.)

Does it matter that "Fearless Girl" isn’t guerrilla art? It’s been lauded as brave and risky, but unlike the "Charging Bull" a few feet away, the new statue was completely legal and above board from the get-go—its permit has just been extended to Feb. 2018, and fans are pushing for permanence.

"I am all about communication through demonstration. Fuck talking about it, fucking do it. That does not mean installations like ‘Fearless Girl’ are a bad thing," said Cindy Gallop, diversity advocate and former BBH chair. "I want to see an equal balance of public installations that make a statement, combined with an equal amount of hard, plentiful action that is actively changing all of this for women. We’re not seeing that."

The "little girl as empowerment" motif is also wearing thin for some. It’s worked well for Always and the "Like a Girl" campaign, and no one seems to question why many of the standard bearers for the brand are too young to use the product. But no seven-year-old, no matter how precocious, runs a hedge fund.

"Before we start patting ourselves on the back for our stance on gender equality, we really have to look at what the message is and how that message would be different if it weren’t about potential—if it were about actual real-time equality," said Andi Zeisler, author of the book "We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement" and co-founder of Bitch Media. "Why do we project so much feel-good potential on images of young women and then pull that away from them at these really crucial moments when they are facing down institutional inequality in schools or workplaces?"

Perhaps that says more about the audience than the advertiser. Would Bowling Green Park be constantly mobbed with fans if the statue was a foot taller, wore a pantsuit and carried a briefcase? Would anyone have liked the Audi ad if a grown woman had won a drag race against bullies from the office? Ads are aspirational, but not everyone aspires to an egalitarian society.

"Fearless Girl" at least provides a platform for conversation about issues that are easily overlooked by most brands. And for that, perhaps it deserves some credit. "I think," said Kat Gordon, founder of the 3% Conference, "if we only allow companies that have completely arrived at their diversity goals to demonstrate any leadership, it will be very quiet."

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