I am female, I speak my mind, and having studied politics at university, I’m fiercely protective of my right to vote. (I’m going to resist the urge to climb up on my soapbox about Brexit and save my thoughts for a rainy day). However, do I get a buzz out of cleaning my flat? Nope. Do my gleaming dishes make me brave enough to face the big bad world? Absolutely not. Am I inspired and emboldened by the latest evolution in Spanx? Well, potentially yes, but you understand where I’m going with this... gender stereotyping is rife in advertising today.
Don’t get me wrong, I sing along to Taylor Swift with pride and I love a good pair of heels, but still I find myself wondering - just when did it become the norm for so many organisations to hijack female ‘empowerment’, an idea with such a hefty political heritage, and use it purely to sell some watered down notion of identity? Perhaps someone should tell Hillary Clinton that all it takes for that little extra accreditation is a new haircut and a pink BIC pen.
Feminism, and more notably women's ‘empowerment’; as the ageless hot topic du jour, has long been used by organisations across the globe to sell more products. Why? Because, unfortunately, it works. Sure, we like to think we’ve advanced leaps and bounds in our portrayal of the female psyche, but scrape away at the surface, and I would argue today feels not that different. The mix of people and products presumed to allegedly transmit and increase female power in modern day, whilst overwhelmingly infinite, is depressingly inadequate all the same. Can a brand truly be ‘empowering’ if it offers no real opportunity to better yourself beyond the intangible, perceived benefits of using a given product?
Take Dove for example: “Look, women. We tell you this because we’re here for you. You really are unpleasant to yourself. Be good to yourself. Buy more Dove” says Dove. A perfect example of said insincere commercial ‘empowerment’. Despite the poignant reminder that “you are more beautiful than you think” and the unadulterated, emotive insight behind the brand’s real beauty sketches, the accompanying video nonetheless quietly upholds the very notion it claims to dispel: that when evaluating ourselves and other women, appearance is paramount. Coming from a brand that is also encouraging the use of anti-cellulite gel and self-tanning moisturizer the irony is almost palpable.
If you ask me, actions speak louder than words. Take ‘Always’ #LIKEAGIRL’ campaign for instance, which not only challenged underlying societal assumptions that doing something “like a girl” was an insult, but also built a legitimate platform from which to continue to champion the cause beyond advertising. This platform includes the ‘Always #LIKEAGIRL Confidence Summit’ (launched in 2015 across 10 cities around the world), as well as the ‘Always Keep Girls in School’ Program alongside the Department of Basic Education, UNICEF, and the Small Projects Foundation. Well done P&G, putting your money where your mouth is, that’s more like it.
It is for this reason that I watched with interest as the world’s second-largest advertiser (and incidentally owner of Dove), boldly announce plans to drop all sexist stereotypes from it’s advertising following the results of a two-year global research study. Said study highlighted some glaring inequalities, including men being four times more likely to have a speaking role in a TVC; women three times more likely to be presented as a product user rather than an authority; and women twice as likely as men to be associated with domestic products like body care and home goods. Astonishingly, the study found that only 2% of today’s ads actually show intelligent women. A valiant yet provocative promise from Unilever given a prominent sub-brand, Axe, once claimed that “the world is facing one of the biggest crises in the history of history: girls are getting hotter and hotter”, but nonetheless, the pledge sure caused a stir in Cannes this year. The report’s dumbfounding findings once more flung the issue of gender stereotyping, conscious or otherwise, straight back into the advertising spotlight.
For me, feminism and empowerment are about choice, the freedom to decide who to be and how to act without falling into a prescribed pigeon-hole. Given how deeply entrenched gender stereotypes continue to be, I am intrigued to see how this plays out, and the impact that it has on the global advertising industry as a whole. In the meantime, however, I will kick up my heels, glass of bubbles in hand, and watch as this new feminist revolution of ‘Girl Power’, hopefully, unfolds.
Author: Nat Kuznetsova, Strategy Manager, Ikon Communications