Femvertising: how brands are selling #empowerment to women
| The Unstoppable campaign, which targets patriarchal myths (and sells sanitary towels)
It started, as these things now do, with a hashtag. Earlier this month, utility company EDF launched a campaign to encourage young girls to explore Stem-based careers (that’s jobs in science, technology, engineering and maths), reminding everyone that “only one in every seven” of these roles in the UK are held by women.
The way the UK’s second-biggest energy provider chose to help was to launch #prettycurious. The sell? “Sparking the imagination of young girls [and] inspiring them to stay curious about the world.” When the marketing team paid for by your electricity bill is selling female empowerment, “femvertising” is no longer a niche internet neologism, but a genuinely queasy chapter in feminism’s fourth wave.
Behold! The advertising industry, once bent on selling us sex is now selling us its disgust with sexism. Experts in the field might point to Virginia Slims, the godmother of allegedly feminist brands, selling female empowerment as far back as 1968. These were the ads that showed women sashaying, strutting and smoking with the tagline: “You’ve come a long way, baby”, making lung cancer an equal-opportunity disease.
Plotted elsewhere on the graph would be Dove’s decade-old Real Beauty campaign, then considered revolutionary for selling body moisturiser – sorry, celebrating diversity in the female form – to all women. Later on, wising up to feminism “trending”, as it were, on social media, came cin February 2014. This campaign, said the company, was “about discovering, encouraging whatever it is that makes a girl take up the challenge; break those barriers and turn ‘can’t’ into ‘can’”. It was fronted, credibly, by Pink, Ellen DeGeneres and Janelle Monae. Which was almost enough to make you forget that CoverGirl spent 50 years telling young women “your personality needs layers, your face doesn’t”.
Cosmetic brand CoverGirl with #GirlsCan
Later that year came Pantene and so, the real rise of hashtag feminism: #ShineStrong launched in June 2014 with a short film titled Sorry, Not Sorry, which highlighted how women constantly apologise without thinking at work, at home, to strangers and friends. The video went viral. A conversation about the message, and not the medium – which let’s not forget, at heart is still an advert about selling swishy, shiny hair – was had on feminist blogs. No more apologies for existing, ladies (or for having limp, dank locks). If the commercialisation of the movement has taught us anything, it’s that you can challenge gender norms, battle inequality … and buy more shampoo.
However, the big success story of femvertising, and winner of shelves of awards, remains #LikeAGirl from Always, makers of maxi-pads and the like. Originally played during Superbowl 2014, the video made by film-maker Lauren Greenfield recruited women, men, boys and pre-pubescent girls and asked them to show what it physically meant to run like a girl or throw like a girl. The adults mugged for the camera – throwing and running, looking weak and embarrassed; but the young girls asked to do the same things ran and threw hard and fast. The result: viewers were forced to consider that doing things “like a girl” should be seen as strong, not pathetic.
Procter & Gamble went a step further this summer and launched a sequel – #Unstoppable – which has clocked up 85m views worldwide with armies of young girls endlessly sharing it online. The launch event, which bundled a roomful of high-achieving women speakers, tried to stress that this wasn’t about selling sanitary products but to address the anxieties of young girls and the debilitating rise of poor mental health among adolescents. A study was carried out in schools by the #LikeAGirl team – who now form their own department within the company – to prove (handily, a cynic might add) that “a girl’s first period marks the lowest level of confidence in a girl’s life” and that it never really recovers: female confidence peaks in childhood.
It’s an issue played out among the activists of feminism online, where hashtag feminism is considered the more palatable face of femvertising. On Sunday, the UN marked its International Day of the Girl with #dayofthegirl, largely promoted via ”. It follows Sport England, which has claimed measurable success with #ThisGirlCanMichelle Obama making “a playlist of anthems – an “inclusive and body-positive” mission to get more women involved in sport and physical activity.
Elsewhere #HeForShe, fronted by Emma Watson, has taken big themes – the research from, say, McKinsey Global Institute that “there is $28tn missing from the global economy because we don’t have gender equality” – and refashioned them into a solidarity movement lived out through social media.
In all, it means we will see more drives to sell young women empowerment through individual brands or projects. Likely ones with catchy slogans that can take off on Twitter and ignore any boring analysis of gender inequality in favour of feeling good. The idea that confidence and self-belief is what the debate and struggle is missing is seductive: it encourages sisterly encouragement – likes, shares and stories told in 140 characters are easily digestible, and a soft way to get adolescents, in particular, hooked on the movement – and, of course, your brand.