Thursday, January 29, 2015

Femvertising: feminism as a marketing tool

To gain an edge on competitors, companies feel pressure to stand for something more than the product they are selling. In the past decade, companies have started “femvertising,” seeking to speak to women and feminists through their advertisements. This trend makes sense considering that women account for 85% of purchasing in the United States.

Dove was one of the earliest companies to join the femvertising movement, with its real beauty campaign in 2004. The campaign seeks to widen the definition of beauty beyond the unattainable definition generally put forward in the media. I remember when I first saw these Dove commercials as a 14-year-old, I thought “wow, this is different.” Since then, the company has launched subsequent campaigns aimed at rethinking portrayals of beauty in advertisements.

Observed alone, these ads seem to step in the right direction, celebrating beauty of all forms rather than only the stereotypical portrayals otherwise found in the media. However, the company that owns Dove, Unilever, also owns Axe—the company that sells toiletry products to men, primarily using the hypersexuality of women as a means of selling its products.

Axe commercials generally show scantily clad women with stereotypical “perfect” bodies fawning over men who use Axe shower gel. Some commercials end with the slogan “The cleaner you are. The dirtier you get.” The different messages the Dove and Axe commercials send is a harsh reminder that companies are in the business of selling products, and they do so by capitalizing on trends that interest buyers.

When questioned regarding the hypocrisy between the advertisements for the two products, a spokeswoman for Dove said that each brand “is tailored to reflect the unique interests and needs of its audience." Essentially then, Dove markets female empowerment to women because only women are interested in empowering women. Axe is not marketing female empowerment to teenage boys and men, because the company believes they are not interested in it. Although the idea behind the real beauty campaign is a good one, perpetuating the stereotype that men are not interested in the empowerment of women—or giving up on getting them interested in it—seems to run counter to the intent of the feminist movement.

Should we be asking more from companies that promote feminism in their advertising? I believe we should. By running the real beauty campaign and simultaneously airing Axe commercials, Unilever turns the ideas of feminism and female empowerment into mere commodities, just as it turns the hypersexualization of women into a commodity. Instead of merely putting forward ideas for the sake of selling a product, companies that promote female empowerment in their advertisements should practice what they preach.

Ultimately, an increase in femvertising is a welcome and positive change. If nothing more, it can show girls that traditional female stereotypes are bogus and that it's okay to be a career driven woman or to have hips. And, studies show that women are responding to these advertisements. In a survey this year by SheKnows, 52% of women said they have purchased a product because they liked the way that the company portrayed strong women in its advertisements.

While I celebrate the increase in female empowerment in advertising, further changes are necessary in advertising and more broadly, all media. I hope for a day when advertisements featuring strong females becomes commonplace, when it is no longer noteworthy that such commercials exist. Not only advertisements directed at women, but directed at everyone—including men.


Jessica S. said...

Your post touches on something important that many overlook: the hypocrisy. I've seen ads that promote rape culture, and reflecting the "interests and needs" of men doesn't cover those. The parent companies also sell women's products. Hopefully, women's purchasing power can affect more changes. Perhaps even put pressure on companies to reevaluate what they think any given group's interests are. Some of my male friends want to see strong women too, but companies are too busy telling them what they want instead of listening to feedback.

Damon Alimouri said...

This brings up an issue. If feminism can be employed as a marketing gimmick, what does that say about feminism's viability for radical change (i.e. bringing about the complete equality of the sexes)? Or, is this an indication that feminism has been transformed into something palatable and useful to the mainstream? In actuality, feminism ought to be something quite revolutionary, something which a multibillion dollar corporation would be afraid to even connote. Or are corporations simply alluding to a cheap, highly adulterated, version of feminism?

Hart Ku said...

It definitely made me laugh when I learned that both Dove and Axe were Unilever brands, and that it is likely that the same CMO is signing off on their respective marketing strategies.

On one hand, Unilever seems to have segmented the market brilliantly. Few "beauty" or "hygiene" commercials become as viral on social media as Dove's and Axe's (Old Spice -- a P&G brand -- is another example). I don't know what the numbers show, but I have the impression that both Dove's and Axe's sales have benefited from it.

On the other hand, a cynic could interpret Unilever's actions as being extremely exploitative. The sexist Axe commercials and the "empowering" Dove commercials seem to have a symbiotic relationship. Axe commercials knock down women's self-esteem, Dove commercials raise their self-esteems, only to be knocked down again by the next commercial. Just the type of emotional roller-coaster that would make someone get up and go shopping for beauty products.

Perhaps that's an unfair criticism of the beauty industry, but when we already stereotype Big Pharma as being greedy enough to manufacture illnesses just to sell cures/treatments, it's all feels pretty dispiriting.

Ahva said...

I agree with you that, despite Unilver's hypocrisy, Dove's "femvertising" can have some positive effects on girls' and women's self-esteem. I too applauded what seemed to be Dove's efforts toward women's empowerment through marketing. But now that I know about Unilever's marketing tactics, I simply feel used and manipulated, and not at all empowered. While Dove's campaigns might have some positive impacts on a surface level, I think that in the long run, they will harm the feminist movement. In order to bring about true and lasting change, we need genuine and sincere participation in the movement toward gender equality.

Moreover, I think you hit the nail on the head with this statement: "Essentially then, Dove markets female empowerment to women because only women are interested empowering women. Axe is not marketing female empowerment to teenage boys and men, because the company believes they are not interested in it." Of course, if Unilever was truly interested in women's empowerment, it would seek to change what males are allegedly interested in, instead of bombarding them with advertisements that objectify the very women that Dove claims to "empower."

Rebecca F. said...

I think it's really unfortunate that one company can at once aim to support and empower women by challenging media portrayals of female beauty while at the same time advertising other products in incredibly gendered and misogynistic ways.

It's also unfortunate that, to me, it seems to be such a straightforward business decision. Rather than attempting to achieve women's empowerment (in the case of Dove) or perpetuate gender stereotypes (with Axe), it seems that these advertising approaches are merely designed to boost sales by targeting a key demographic. From an economic perspective it makes perfect sense – Unilever is attempting to maximize profits with a method that has been proven to work – but maybe it is time we start asking more of corporations.