Should Your Brand Flirt with Women’s Empowerment?

Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson - Mad Men _ Season 7, Episode 2 - Photo Credit: Michael Yarish/AMC

Women’s empowerment is a hot topic in advertising right now. As a lady, it seems like I can’t watch a razor commercial without being reminded that a) I’m amaaazing b) I’m beautiful, smooth legs or nah c) I can do anything! Sometimes these ads might acknowledge that it’s hard being a woman, as in we want to do it all, but we can’t, and also our teenage children scoff at our choice in footwear, no matter how hard we try to be hip.  This topic is so hot there’s even an awards show called #Femvertising.

The idea behind #Femvertising is a provocative and smart one. The award show itself aims to “honor companies that are challenging gender stereotypes by building awareness-generating, pro-female messages and images into ads that target women.” Challenging gender stereotypes and building awareness for women’s issues are noble pursuits, and brands have the money and scale to take them on. I can’t fault a brand for setting about to try to make women’s lives better.

That said, brands start from a tricky position of having decades of gender stereotype-coded messaging under their belts. Brands aren’t just one of the biggest peddlers of gender stereotypes — oftentimes they’ve created them. (Would diamonds be a girl’s best friend if the diamond companies hadn’t told us they were?) Today, many commercials are targeted at “gatekeeper moms,” assuming that not only do moms spend most of a family’s money, but they do almost all of a family’s cooking and cleaning too. (Even though realistically, 28% of women are the breadwinners in today’s families and 1.9 million dads stay home with the kids.)

This doesn’t mean that brands can’t have credibility in this space. Oftentimes advertising recognizes the scale and influence of a population far before even Hollywood does. Advertising will probably beat mainstream T.V. and movies when it comes to fully embracing America’s growing hispanic population, even if they may talk to them in a way that totally misses the mark. For women, advertising has evolved a lot since the days when Peggy Olson tried to prove women wanted facial cream for something other than landing a husband. It can’t hurt that women like Peggy have increasingly entered the advertising space, even if they still only make up 11% of creative directors. But compared to Hollywood, where only 12% of protagonists were women in 2014, advertising’s desire to not just court, but better understand women is worth a head nod, at the least.

So when did advertising first get bit by the women’s empowerment bug? To answer that, we’d have to figure out when women’s empowerment first reached the point of precipitation in culture. For fun, I looked to see if that term has been rising in Google trends. The answer? Not really.

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A smattering of celebrities have been raising awareness about feminist issues lately, from Emma Watson (#HeForShe) to Beyoncé to Lena Dunham. The increasing dialog about street harassment, women’s reproductive health, the wage gap and rape awareness has risen thanks to the Internet/blogosphere and comedians like Jessica Williams and Amy Schumer. There’s also the election, which has become a fight to appeal to feminists, mostly between Hillary Clinton, the potential first female president, and Bernie Sanders, a proponent of a higher minimum wage and better parental leave policies.

I’m sure these are influential factors, but it’s just as likely that brands just want to be like Dove. Unilever’s minimalistic body product brand struck a chord with its #RealBeauty campaign a decade ago, and brands catering to women have been clamoring to follow in their footsteps ever since. Since then we’ve seen some very compelling ad creative aimed at raising awareness of women’s issues, from Always’ #LikeaGirl documentary to American Greetings’ #WorldsToughestJob. What’s going to win your brand an advertising award? A tear-jerking documentary that really means something is going to do better than a shallow portrayal of a stereotype every time.

But criticism of this type of marketing is starting to rise along with it. The New York Times published a scathing essay by Jia Tollentino examining the many ways empowerment is being sold to women. She compares the feminism of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In project to Kim Kardashian’s statement that she is empowered by her [naked] body. “Sandberg and Kardashian are perceived by most to be opposites, two aesthetically distinct brands fighting for our allegiance, when each has pioneered a similar, punish­ingly individualistic, market-driven understanding of women’s worth, responsibility and strength. In the world of women’s empowerment, they say the same thing differently: that our radical capability is mainly our ability to put money in the bank.”

It’s the kind of final sentence that will make all women wince a little bit, because it rings a little too true. And yet. A part of me is hesitant to be too pessimistic about brands’ sudden interest in women’s empowerment. Yes, it seems that the rising awareness of our issues unfortunately seems to come with hashtags attached to products. But that’s better than nothing, and certainly better than resorting back to advertising that plays to female insecurities. Brands are never going to dole out spoonfuls of pure empowerment without there being some business goal at the center. But they can work hard to make their message ring true rather than hollow. When they do, they can create something truly powerful.

For brands who want to play in this field, I humbly offer these tips for doing something meaningful for women’s empowerment:

1. Acknowledge that There are Real Forces in the World That Hold Women Back

What feels the most phony in this women’s empowerment movement is any ad aimed at giving a woman a little ego boost. Women are not getting the short end of the stick because we just don’t believe in ourselves enough. Our problems are not actually our own fault. We’re paid less, we’re harassed more and our rights are brought into question every time there’s an election. If your brand can do something about one of these actual problems rather than just tell us we’re beautiful no matter what, you’re on the track.

2. To that Point, It’s Not Just About Being Beautiful

By emphasizing beauty, you’re just reinforcing the idea that our looks are all that matter.

3. It’s About What You Do for Women, Not Just What You Say to Them

You can write a beautiful poem about the power of women and put it in an ad, or you can lead by example. You can pay your company’s female employees equally, give them three months of maternity leave and put women in executive positions. You can publicize this and encourage other companies to do the same. You can also make products that make women’s lives easier.

4. Focus on Real Women, Not Aspirational Women

Almost all the good ads about women’s empowerment are documentary-style, in my opinion. No anthemic excitement-fest is going to say what real women can say as well as they can.

5. Listen to Women in the Creation of Your Campaign

It shows when you don’t!

Becky Lang

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