First published on Monday the 5th of February, 2018, this piece comes in at number 13 in the top 30 most read Villainesse stories of 2018.
Right now, somewhere in a high rise building, a discussion is taking place. “How can we sell this product to women?” There are no women around this table. In fact, there’s only one female executive in the whole advertising company. “Girl power,” suggests one of the men, and the room nods. The irony may be lost on them, but presenting a false image of empowerment sells products.
A lot of the time, feminist advertising campaigns are enjoyable. For the lack of sexism alone, they’re a refreshing change from normal ads. But they also reflect a shallow kind of feminism that is exclusive, empty, and hypocritical. Commercial feminism – the kind of feminism produced as a brand – is not empowering, nor is it an example of progress.
Marketing directed towards women hasn’t moved far from 1968, when Virginia Slims began marketing campaigns based on the women’s rights movement. The tag line “You’ve come a long way, baby” was designed to engage with the modern woman. The cigarettes sold well, and shallow reflections of the feminist movement have been a popular marketing strategy ever since.
While there’s no problem with a fun, feminist ad, there is a problem with brand hypocrisy and co-opting a social movement to sell products. Companies that produce traditional (read: sexist) advertising are also looking to make a profit from feminism.
The commercial image of feminism is not intersectional; it’s exclusive. The target group is essentially white women with money - because that’s who teams of (probably white, probably male) marketers think will buy their products. And the kind of feminism that focuses on straight, cis-gender, white women with money is empty and problematic in the first place.
(Note: yep, I am the white girl feminist who is represented by these ads. A lot of people are not. Teams of marketers are catering to feminism that includes me while ignoring the rest of the movement. Which really sucks.)
Even brands lauded for progressive ad campaigns can be part of the problem. The long running Dove Real Beauty campaign encourages body positivity and is representative of soft, commercial feminism. But Dove also posted an ad that included overt racism, and then there are its (inherently problematic) skin bleaching products. While presenting itself as body positive and inclusive, the brand also uses advertising that plays into racist attitudes towards women of colour.
Taylor Swift’s white feminism is similar to Dove’s narrow adoption of feminist values. While nodding to the movement during her 1989 era, she seemingly abandoned feminism without thought once it became hard for her to reconcile with her fanbase. She used the movement to further her brand, imitating it without contributing in a meaningful way.
Nowhere is the emptiness of commercial feminism more evident than in the hypocrisy of certain successful brands. Ivanka Trump’s attempts to frame herself as an empowering role model while refusing to condemn her father’s sexist behaviour are a blatant example. Miki Agrawal of Thinx, a period underwear company, was accused of sexual harassment and allegedly perpetuated a negative work environment despite the brand’s commitment to feminist branding. Sophia Amoruso, of #GirlBoss fame, allegedly created a hostile workplace that fired women for their pregnancies rather than providing maternity leave.
At the core of commercial feminism is a desire to sell, whether the product is albums or deodorant. Without activism at its centre, feminist branding doesn’t represent a step forward. Brands are built to sell products and gain media attention, not to empower women or add to the feminist movement. Until brands go beyond raising awareness for one limited type of feminism, they have little to offer the cause.
A feminist ad does not equal a feminist brand.Support Villainesse