Is "Girl-Power" Advertising Doing Any Good?

pantene ad still

A Pantene ad points out sexist double standards, then encourages women to "shine strong" with their shampoo. 

I can see the history book headlines now: “Feminism Through Capitalism: How Tampon and Soap Commercials Struck The Fatal Blow To Sexism in 2014.” 

No? The Huffington Post sure seemed to think so, as did the precisely hundred-zillion distant relatives and former classmates who inundated my newsfeed with links to the recent “fempowerment” campaigns (read: commercials) launched by companies like Always, Pantene, Dove, and Verizon. These companies have all recently realized that framing video ads around a girl-power sentiment helps them become viral hits. 

Of course, it didn’t take long for folks to line up along the other side of the ideological divide. As writer Emily Shire said, the Always “Like a Girl” campaign “demonstrates real problems—femaleness as a derogatory statement, decrease in self-confidence as women mature—in a beautiful and clear way, but then pretends a corporate manufacturer of panty liners meant to “help you feel fresh every day" can solve them. Multinational corporations that exist exclusively to profit by selling stuff aren’t genuinely taking on the end of sexism as their new end goal? Roger that, Marge Gunderson.  

The video for Always' "Like a Girl" campaign has been viewed 44 million times on YouTube. 

So here we are, once again, stuck in another good vs. not good enough debate: either these ads are radically tackling sexism through a historically appalling medium or it doesn’t matter what these ads say because corporations don’t actually care and will say anything to make a buck.

What if it’s both? That is to say, what if these companies are forwarding feminist messaging despite not actually caring about it? And what if that still helps us?

Of course these companies are just trying to sell us stuff, and it’s important to keep that in mind. But when I asked the media critic Barbara Lippert for her perspectives on the recent campaigns, she pointed out these ads show the way media is evolving. Lippert noted that the pro-period message seen in a recent ad from menstrual product company HelloFlo would likely never wind up on television, in part because ad time on TV is so expensive. The costs of producing a professional video ad for the internet—while not free by a long shot—is much lower, since distribution is free. “They actually could compete with Procter & Gamble for the first time ever,” says Lippert. “The internet allows so many women to open up their own businesses, and they bring another kind of message to it.”

Madeline Di Nonno does research on gender in pop culture as part of her job as CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender. She notes that while these recent campaigns are selling products, of course, advertising sends powerful messages to viewers. Improving the messaging in ads has long been a goal of people looking to improve gender representation in pop culture. Instead of paying cable channels to distribute their ads, savvy companies recognize that if they create ads viewers identify with, customers will distribute the ads far and wide themselves on their own social media. That has caused some companies to take a “fempowerment” bent that they would have ignored a decade go. “These brands that are really tracking trends—which that’s all they do—they clearly would be aware of this,” says Di Nonno. 

dove ad campaign shows a woman and asks "fat or fit?"

The Dove "Real Beauty" campaign features women of various body types and skin tones. 

For those of us who surround ourselves with intersectional anti-oppressive ideology, what’s considered progress in the mainstream can feel like a joke. But that’s our piece of the jigsaw—to be progressive is by definition to be ahead of the curve. While we don’t need to be naively over-celebratory about billion-dollar conglomerates pandering to female consumers, I do get immense enjoyment from the fact that such companies are doing so, not because they want to, but because they have to.  

Consider the rest of the ideological junk that we’re surrounded by. A popular industry study by Frederick Grouzet and Tim Kasser highlighted how most advertisements avoid encouraging conscious thought, with understandably destructive consequences. Anyone who has watched the documentary Miss Representation—or, you know, maintained consciousness throughout a life of being inundated by ads, videos, shows, and films that depict gendered stereotypes—can testify to that.  

These “fempowerment” campaigns do precisely the opposite. Their eventual purpose is to sell stuff, but their primary messages are that we should stop telling girls that they’re weak, encourage them to get into STEM fields, quit apologizing for ourselves, and remember that we’re damn good-looking just how we are. Me? I can get down with those messages, even when they’re being generated out of corporations’ self-interest.

In fact, I like that they’re doing it out of self-interest. I don’t want feminism to be charity. I want companies to consider supporting feminism to be necessary for their survival.  

verizon ad still shows a girl hanging planets in her room

A recent viral Verizon ad showed how young girls can be discouraged from an interest in science and tech.

Considering that we live in a capitalist society, here’s what I want to happen next: I want these brands’ competitors to notice how wildly popular these stereotype-smashing commercials have been and then shamelessly copy their style. Maybe they can even up the ante—this is all about the competition, after all—and bring in additional marginalized communities to tell the world to quit messing with them, too. Maybe they can hire women to write, direct, and produce these ads, tipping the imbalance of the film industry, where men outnumber women five to one. 

Then I want these companies to realize that they can never go back, that the reason this marketing strategy works is the same reason that reversion to stereotypical tropes won’t: we’re watching. And hypocrisy makes a hell of a brand loyalty killer.

Speaking of hypocrisy, media analyst and founding president of the Women’s Media Center Carol Jenkins pointed out to me that when it comes to empowerment-based marketing, “Any promotional effort should be accompanied by on the ground support for women and girls’ organizations and support groups.” 

So how do the companies that have gotten the rhetoric down measure up? 

Pantene has set up a Shine Strong fund, which will underwrite grants for the American Association of University of Women’s Campus Action Project as well as supporting the program’s operating costs for a total support amount of $121,000.

Dove’s financial contributions are a little tougher to track down, though they do appear to have been underwriting a handful of projects in partnership with the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Girls Inc, and Girl Scouts. 

Always doesn’t donate cash to any programs, but when I asked the company about backing up their “Like a Girl” campaign with programming, the sent back a statement about their “Puberty Education Program,” which provides free materials about puberty (and Always products) to schools. 

Verizon, on the other hand, has stood out from the trend in a handful of ways. They’re the only company I spoke with that has actually paid to air their empowerment ad on television, and their website boasts technology innovation programs and awards in the millions of dollars, a significant chunk of which does indeed go to school-age girls. Check out this year’s winners who brought in $20,000 awards to each of their respective schools. 

As technology further incentivizes the world of marketing to evolve from a spoon-feeding mechanism into a two-way street, it is harder for corporations to avoid accountability to their audiences. It will be interesting to see how far these companies will go to incorporate the perspectives of traditionally ignored consumers. In addition to empowerment marketing, how else will we see old tropes that activists have been challenging for decades finally get left behind on-screen? BMW moving past clichéd notions of motorcycle riders, Pepsi featuring Janelle Monae playing guitar in suspenders, Tide bringing in a dad for once to clean up the messes made his rowdy daughters: these latest ads are a small, subtle current of complexity in the monstrous ocean of formulaic blather that is corporate advertising. When will the rest catch up? I’m looking at you, Radioshack… and Carl’s Jr… and American Apparel… and every alcohol brand ever.

Related Reading: How Vintage Ads Sold Women on Shame. 

Natalie Baker is a marketing strategist, writer, and graphic designer based out of New York City. Connect with her at @NatalieBakerrr or thetravelingfreelancer.com.


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Comments

11 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Verizon

Verizon also stands out in that they're not marketing a product geared almost entirely toward women like the other companies are. I don't know what to make of that, but presumably Verizon thinks the ads won't scare off men at the very least, and possibly they appeal to some emotion Verizon wants to exploit in men.

Fantastic article!

Fantastic article!

Girl Power ads

I agree that I think the positive representations are better than the alternative, and can help to slowly change things, especially if the companies are following through on real commitment to positive changes.

I've liked Chevy's The New Us and Honey Maid's this is wholesome, especially Honey Maid's response to the hate mail from their first ad. Swiffer has also started showing more men cleaning (Tide also has another dad commercial).

Love the article. I have my

Love the article. I have my doubts that this new marketing trend will lead to these ads actually being written, directed, or produced by women, but I agree that this is still progress.

distribution

Seems to me that the reason HelloFlo's pro-period message wouldn't end up on television isn't just about cost, but about audience: they know perfectly well that those links are going to be forwarded to feministy folks like the author or me, and not to people who would be grossed out by considering the existence of menstruation.

It's great that "girl power" is a big enough demographic niche to attract niche marketing, but it seems to me that for the moment, it's just another niche.

I am totally on board with

I am totally on board with advertising portraying women and girls in non-stereotypical roles, but we have to remember that this emerging trend is, in all likelihood, based on the fact that market research has shown that women have a lot of untapped spending power. Even if the product is not specific to women (e.g. Verizon), these ads ARE targeted at women. Verizon wants women to think that Verizon is the most feminist cellular network, and thus choose Verizon over their competitors for their next purchase. In the current state of things, it is male corporate executives who benefit most from female consumers' money. This phenomenon is not devoid of exploitation. Empowerment of women in advertising still leads to profits for men in power in real life (at least for large, male-dominated corporations).

ALso..

I also want to be on the lookout for ways these messages may seem empowering but may also be slyly undermining. For example, the way the ad subtly suggests that the derogatory nature of the phrase "like a girl" has mysterious origins (when did like a girl become an insult?) rather than suggesting that there's a lengthy socio-cultural history in which such attitudes serve to divide people and benefit those in power.

As someone who convinces

As someone who convinces large corporations to spend more money on programs such as this, this is what i would say. If Corporations can see the benefits of them spending money on social good, they will invest in it.

I find it really frustrating when I see the negative backlash, because truth is, if that backlash outpaces the benefits, one thing will happen. These campaigns will go away. The Dove self esteem fund will dry up and Corporations will give them, contribute less and go back to product focused advertising that sells you a different dream.

Using the Feminine or Including the Feminine

I appreciate the dialectic here, which is evidence of the sorely needed value for the Feminine, where opposing views can be considered, appreciated (understood for their context), and then each informing the other to widen perspectives---black and white just solidifies what we think we already know. As is the case with my original comment, (see below), on the "like a girl" video, that now is widened by your input: "what if these companies are forwarding feminist messaging despite not actually caring about it? And what if that still helps us?" Brilliant, as long as we stay conscious of the source and intention, and what Truth remains regardless (as in Alternative Medicine, many a MD including Acupuncture as profit margin intention, and Corporations including Mindfulness to increase productivity)
And I would say that this is Beyond Feminism and toward who we are inherently as human beings, and in order to have full access to our potential requires the Feminine—the Care, Collaboration, Connection, Courage, which is Constructive-- We are here to Turn a View, to ease the fear of the Feminine, so we can utilize its Power---as it is "necessary for our survival", and is a part of each of us as human beings.
My initial comment:
In reference to the video campaign "Like a Girl":
Though I appreciate the sentiment and the desperate need to reinform cultures around the world about the relevance of feminine power (in all of us), versus the current misogynistic systematic repression and violence against women/the feminine principle, please note that this video is savvy sophisticated marketing by a feminine product company, once again, using the feminine toward the benefit of the masculine profit margin. If truly interested, maybe this might be more inspiring, http://www.unwomen.org/

Verizon

I really appreciate this whole article. I've had the good vs good enough conversation about these ads with a few people and I have always taken the stance that, since media dictates so much of our lives, putting positive messages out there is always a good thing.

Also, Verizon really does stand out with their giving. They give a grant to the Vermont Network Against Sexual & Domestic Violence every year, which really helps all of the network programs.

I object, but....

I finally watched a the like a girl advert and I have to admit, it's much more moving than I expected. Those are some sly and creative "Mad Men" (and/or women) working on this campaign. Instead of the standard cutesy catch phrase, the ad actually interrogates real world misogynist language that infects/affects us all.

I don't like Always (and whoever their parent companies are) being leaders in this conversation, but the ad is getting a lot of attention and will hopefully start plenty of thoughtful conversations. It does seem heartening that a megacorp saw this genuinely interesting message as a sale-able one.

There's definitely a subtle shift in mainstream approaches to marketing to women and girls: Frozen, Maleficent, and Lucy spring to mind. I'm intrigued to see where this takes us. I don't trust advertisers (even a little), but like other media products- films, music , books- they may reflect and strengthen worthwhile zeitgeists.

I also think the gentle tone of "like a girl" is likely to be inviting to both women and men. Maybe even a gentle nudge in the right direction for folks who'd typically ignore such a message?