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Why feminism as a marketing strategy isn’t necessarily a bad thing

By now, you’ve likely seen the t-shirt ad doing the rounds at the moment, in which young girls dressed in princess costumes talk about inequality while using language considered by many to be wildly inappropriate. If you haven’t, here it is. Potentially NSFW, depending on where you work. But don’t be THAT person – put headphones on.

This post is not about the little girls swearing, which seems to be the thing most people can’t get past. I’m not particularly offended by it, though I guess I can understand why some people are. But really, ‘fuck’ is just a word. The girls’ parents were obviously fine with the script of the video, and no one is making your kid watch it or speak like this. Move on.

No, this post is about feminism in marketing, and why it’s not always the awful thing some people claim it is. It seems to be in vogue at the moment for big companies to highlight women’s issues as part of their marketing strategy. It doesn’t always work out. In fact, sometimes it’s plain offensive – Snickers, I’m looking at you.

But Always’ ‘Like A Girl’, Verizon’s ‘Inspire Her Mind’, and Under Armour’s ‘I Will What I Want’ featuring Misty Copeland and Gisele Bundchen are all ads/campaigns that I like. They’re effective, they raise issues that should be talked about, and they feel pretty genuine.

Yes, they were all designed by big corporations to sell products and, as a result, make a profit. I don’t know if ending sexism is important to the directors of these companies, or if these ads were purely made to make more money, but guess what? Regardless, they’re still getting a positive message out into the world. They’re still drawing attention to aspects of sexism that don’t typically get mainstream attention.

Source: YouTube
Source: YouTube

Likewise, FCKH8.com’s so-called “shocking” ad has attracted a lot of attention and (I assume) introduced some people to ideas they hadn’t thought about before. So many people think there’s no reason for feminism anymore because most Western women can vote and work, when in reality there’s so much more to inequality than those two things. Perhaps this ad will make these people reevaluate. At the very least, it’s a conversation starter. So what if the company makes money because of it?

Frankly, I’d rather buy products from a company that’s making something of an effort to address inequality than one that’s not. And I much prefer attempted feminist advertising than the all-too-common grossly sexist advertising you usually see.

There is, however, a problem when companies use a feminist marketing strategy, but then don’t back it up with their other actions. Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty, while not perfect, also isn’t terrible — at least in my books. But the fact that Dove refused to pull its ads from Facebook during last year’s #FBrape campaign says much more about its values than its Real Beauty ads. And, Dove is owned by Unilever, which also owns Axe, and Axe’s advertising is usually pretty degrading towards women.

I also didn’t much care for Cover Girl’s ‘Girls Can’ ad. I really wanted to, because I love Ellen and Pink and Queen Latifah, but the idea of a cosmetic company telling women to be themselves seems a little disingenuous.

Source: YouTube
Source: YouTube

Then there’s U by Kotex’s ad for liners that conceal your sweaty crotch, in which a woman out running would rather dive into the ocean fully clothed than be seen with a sweat patch. The company says it wants to empower women by ending embarrassment about vaginas, but I’d argue this ad does the exact opposite. Fortunately, Australian comedian Sammy J summed up what many of us were thinking in this song.

So yes, often companies’ attempts to incorporate a women-empowering message into their marketing is inappropriate, ineffective and/or offensive. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done well. And when it is, it starts conversations that need to be had, conversations that may not happen otherwise. Advertising is powerful, and can change people’s perceptions — why not embrace advertising that could change them for the better?

For some other writers’ points of view on feminism in marketing, check out The Guardian, Ad Age, Bitch Media, Deseret News National and The Guardian again.

And for some other thoughts on FCKH8’s video, see Adweek and Mashable.

What do you think of companies using feminism as part of a marketing strategy? Let me know!

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