Corporate Accountability and WorkPlace

Is Girl-Power Advertising Doing Women Any Good?

Why are multinational corporations suddenly so interested in fighting sexism?

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 hundred-zillion distant relatives and former classmates who inundated my newsfeed with links to the recent “fempowerment” campaigns (read: commercials) launched by companies like AlwaysPanteneDove 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? What if these companies are forwarding feminist messaging despite not actually caring about feminism? 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 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, 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 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 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 the 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 it does 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 its “Like a Girl” campaign with programming, it sent back a statement about its “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. It is the only company I spoke with that has actually paid to air its empowerment ad on television, and its 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 his rowdy daughters made: 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.