Leaning In: What’s the Deal with “Feminist” Marketing? - Insights

Leaning In: What’s the Deal with “Feminist” Marketing?

by Anastasia Dyakovskaya

5 minute read

Reappropriating sociocultural topics and messages for marketing purposes is nothing new, and yet the explosion of the F-word over the past year or so has seemed somewhat unprecedented. Riding in on its fourth wave, backed by the rise of tech and social media, feminism today is marked by digital rebellion – using every available online avenue to take its all-important message front and center.

In turn, brand after brand has jumped onto the fempowerment bandwagon, trying to make the most of what’s now become – or been reduced to, in the eyes of many – just another marketing trend. For advertisers, the energy and interest surrounding feminism certainly seems viral-worthy, making the topic a powerful source for emotionally driven campaigns (especially when accompanied by some swelling instrumentals). Critics, on the other hand, are left frustrated and wary, decrying the oversimplification and opportunistic use of what they see as a serious topic that shouldn’t be trivialized under any circumstances.

Sometimes (if not most of the time), they’re right. Many companies have attempted to co-opt the message and completely failed, coming off as insensitive at best or simply offensive at worst. It can be fun, of course, to poke through ridiculously sexist ads from decades past and marvel at how far we’ve come… until you realize that certain modern marketing hasn’t evolved that much to speak of.

While many may see the “Yes We Can!” poster as the original face of feminism, it actually wasn’t until the 1980s that the WWII-era image gained popularly and became associated with the cause. Though widely reproduced, the strong female figure generally tends to fall flat in the hands of inspiration-hungry advertisers. Last year’s Swiffer ad, for instance, which starred an “updated” version of the bandana-clad babe (armed and ready to tackle – wait for it – housework), even landed on AdWeek’s list of 2013’s Most Sexist Ads.

After receiving a ton of backlash, the brand has since removed all related material, but stunts like this make it all the more difficult for companies that are actually trying to tackle the subject with some sincerity.

Like anything in today’s marketing landscape, that’s what’s key: authenticity. But even brands that speak from the heart run the risk of striking out when it comes to such delicate themes. Dove, for instance, a company that’s seen so much praise over the past decade for its Real Beauty campaign, recently hit a wrong chord with its “Patches” ad. The media was quick to rip it apart, bashing the clip for its apparently condescending trickery, which nevertheless hasn’t stopped it from receiving over 20.5 million views on YouTube.

Having words like “feminism” on the minds and lips of more and more people isn’t exactly a bad thing. One way or another, awareness is being raised. That’s why it’s actually refreshing – and a serious step up – to see women being portrayed in powerful ways in more successful ads, even if the end goal is still selling a product. Brands that truly believe in their message are much more likely to accomplish something that makes a true impression – on audience emotions and sales as well.

The haters (and there are many) should remember to give viewers a bit more credit. People today are savvier than ever. They know that your shampoo commercial isn’t going to magically turn them into Eva Mendes lookalikes, but that doesn’t make the product any less valuable for personal hygiene. So, then, why not infuse the message with some fem-positivity, like Pantene’s latest #ShineStrong ad that encourages women to stop being sorry and start standing up for themselves.

Even brands that don’t have anything directly to do with women or products targeted toward females have shown how capable they are in using the message in powerful, constructive, and inspiring ways. Verizon, for example, hit the nail on the head with its recent Inspire Her Mind campaign.

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The company’s philanthropic foundation; whose efforts support education, healthcare, and energy management – created the ad based on research that revealed how few girls we have going into the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and math), and just how invaluable these skills will be in the near future. The result? Almost 3.5 million views on YouTube since the start of June and overwhelmingly positive feedback expressing thanks and refreshed delight.

It’s these kinds of moves that are breaking down barriers and making way for bigger ideas. Case in point: GoldieBlox, a new toy company giving little girls the opportunity to start thinking like engineers – and letting them in on the fact that the profession even exists in the first place.

The brand is set on crushing gender stereotypes and “disrupting the pink aisle,” making sure that girls have more than Barbies and bake sets to choose from while showing them that they have the power to do so. The startup even had a spot play during this year’s Super Bowl. Not bad for something a girl made.

Audiences know what you’re up to by now. If you’re using gender issues flippantly just to move your merch, all you’ll achieve is moving your crowd on to the next seller. Think long and hard before adopting a feminist message and only go for it if it’s right for your brand – and if you’re ready to use it in a meaningful way. Whatever you do, make sure it’s genuine; one false move is all it takes to lose a person’s trust.

By Anastasia Dyakovskaya, NewsCred Contributor
Image courtesy of jaeyoohyeon.com