Female Empowerment and Ad Campaigns


Image from yahoomujer.tumblr.com

Image from yahoomujer.tumblr.com

I hate ads with a passion. My normal response to any annoying pop-up that dares to cross my line of vision is a spiteful promise never to buy the product in question. Ads are bright, flashy, corny, and … feminist? Perhaps feminist isn’t quite the right word for the recent slew of ads targeted at the female demographic. The biggest word being thrown around is empowerment, with the requisite accompanying hashtags of #ShineStrong, #LikeAGirl, and #GirlsCan. Female empowerment is now being used to sell everything from shampoo to cell phones.

The “Like a Girl” hashtag comes to Twitter courtesy of Always, the feminine product line from P&G. Reminiscent of Ban Bossy, the new ad explores the negative connotations behind the phrase “Like a Girl.” Instead of a rallying call of “ban, ban, ban!,” Always hopes to redefine the phrase, switching out the negative connotations for positive ones. Some people may think it is silly to focus on the impact a single phrase can have on the confidence and self-esteem of girls.  I beg to differ—language is immensely powerful. The negative connotations of “Like a Girl” are a type of misogyny that is embedded and often unnoticed in the English language. Bringing the sexist stereotypes to the forefront allows us to confront and even eradicate them.

If Always had just stopped with the hashtag, I would have been suspicious that female empowerment was just a façade used for marketing and image purposes. However, Always seems genuine in their desire to empower females around the world.  There are various endeavors and acts of charity which show the company’s dedication to the cause they have been championing. I may be naïve, but I believe female empowerment can be more than just a ploy or a gimmick. One factor contributing to this belief is the website beinggirl.com, where teen girls can ask questions and get credible answers from knowledgeable sources. The website tackles a variety of important issues ranging from “Avoiding Teenage Dating Abuse” to “How Sex Works.” The site is no Scarleteen and is clearly meant to advertise the Always products, but it is still a decent tool for adolescents.  In addition, Always partnered with UNESCO to give girls in Nigeria and Senegal a literary education. They also joined and proudly support the Ban Bossy cause. They have a puberty education program which affects girls in 65 countries globally. Clearly, these efforts are not just noble but also immensely beneficial for the company. The puberty education programs especially so, as they build product loyalty starting with young girls. Despite the obvious perks of this charity or these acts of encouraging female empowerment, I believe Always should not be demonized.  Even if the motives of Always were solely mercenary, the programs they have in place are still worthy of applause.

Another company that can walk the walk along with talking the talk is Verizon. The “talk” is their latest ad “Inspire her mind,” created in conjunction with Makers.  The ad shows a young, observant, a curious young girl interested in the world around her. It follows her life from young child to adolescent, and shows the subtle and often unintentional ways we discourage girls from interests that would lead to STEM careers. In an attempt to cultivate refined ladylikeness, the well-intentioned parents say things like “Sammy sweetie, don’t get your dress dirty,” and “Woah! Hey careful with that! Why don’t you hand that [drill] to your brother?” At the end of the ad, the girl walks up to a poster for a science fair. She appears to be studying it, but then she looks at her reflection in the glass and puts on some lipgloss. Verizon notes the meaningful impact of words, and the statistics which show that while many young girls (66% of 4th graders) like science and math, only 18% of those majoring in engineering are female. They end with, “Isn’t it time we told her she’s pretty brilliant too?” Like Always, the ad is inspiring and well-made, with an important sentiment to share. Another parallel can be seen with Verizon’s slew of programs promoting female empowerment, from encouraging the formation of Girls Who Code clubs to creating the Verizon Innovative Learning Schools program. The program helps teachers to integrate technology into the classroom, and hopefully spark young girls interest in STEM. Just as Always seems quite genuine, Verizon appears the same way as well. Again, the programs are beneficial to the company, and again it may all be a gimmick. But in my mind, a gimmick that encourages girls to pursue STEM careers is the best kind of gimmick. A step down from the efforts of Verizon and Always are those of Pantene.

The latest Pantene ad features a montage of women saying “sorry” for everyday things like asking a question or grabbing some of the bedsheets. The ad then tells women we shouldn’t be sorry—we should “Be strong and shine.” This, of course, is the origin of #Shinestrong. The montage continues and the same scenes from before repeat, but this time devoid of the word sorry. The music suddenly becomes upbeat, and all of the females become empowered, confident, and happy. Some of them even throw in a sassy “Sorry not sorry.” Despite my tone, I’m actually a big fan of this ad. I think it sheds light on an important issue—that women should stop the frequent apologizing for unnecessary things. The problem I have is the campaign does not seem very genuine. The only thing Pantene is doing is encouraging women to use the hashtag “Shinestrong.” This is just promotion for the company. As Shonda Rhimes astutely pointed out, a hashtag is far is not a movement, it’s not activism, it doesn’t change anything. It’s good that Pantene has brought awareness to the problem of over-apologizing. As far as marketing gimmicks goes, it’s a pretty good one. But at least for a cynic like me, it seems to be just that—a gimmick and nothing more.

If Pantene female empowerment façade seemed thin, than that of CoverGirl is simply a piece of Saran wrap. The “inspirational” video features celebrities/CoverGirls like Ellen DeGeneres, Sofia Vergera, Queen Latifah, Pink, and Katy Perry saying “Girls can.” That sentiment naturally evolved into #Girlscan. At least for me, the  ad was so cheesy, corny, and over all gimmick-y as to be painful. I didn’t buy into the “woman empowerment,” I just saw a makeup company trying to sell me mascara. Although CoverGirl is sold by P&G, it does not have female empowerment programs like Always. Perhaps this is because while makeup can be liberating in some cases, in many others it is a cage. CoverGirl can’t exactly go around the country empowering girls by handing out free makeup. It’s not just the lack of additional efforts to empower females, aside from the hashtag. “Girls can” itself is so vague and wide-reaching as to have no real influence. Pantene targets a specific habit which is detrimental to women. Always targets the negative connotations of a specific phrase. All CoverGirl could come up with was two vague and mildly insulting words. It’s as if CoverGirl is approaching their customers and saying “Breaking news! Despite the misogynist jerks, girls actually can do stuff! Now that you’re so empowered, come and buy some makeup!” An actual quote from the Youtube description of the ad is “Stay tuned for more on how COVERGIRL is what girls can do.” Glory hallelujah, girls can do CoverGirl.

I know what you may be thinking—who am I to assess the relative genuineness or non-genuineness of a company’s ad campaigns?  I won’t pretend to have any special insight aside from the impressions and thoughts of a cynical teenage girl. As much as we may hope for an ad-free utopia, companies will never stop marketing their products. Even for those companies with solely mercenary interest, “female empowerment” ad campaigns are still a beautiful thing. Even for the more “genuine” efforts like those of Always and Verizon, they are still selling winged liners and cellphones at the end of the day. If they’re going to sell products, they might as well try to empower females along the way. As plenty of other companies have shown, there are far worse ways to market products.

 

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