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Femvertising: Social Change Tool or Capitalist Gimmick?

Globally, feminism is becoming a formidable force. More and more women are taking a stand against body shaming, sexual harassment, repressive traditions, and rape culture, while pushing for women’s rights, women’s empowerment, and equal representation in politics and business. This has been further fueled by social media events like the #MeToo movement. Gender equality is now a red-hot topic that can incite high levels of emotion and conflict anywhere in the world.

All of this has raised the stakes for brands seeking to engage female consumers. Brands can no longer easily get away with the patronizing, condescending tone towards women that was employed by campaigns of the past. They are increasingly expected to go beyond displaying product attributes or user benefits in advertising, to connect with customers on a deeper level by identifying and tackling social issues. And since feminism has proven to be an enormous social issue, brands which want to remain socially relevant cannot but identify with it in some way. As women’s rights activist Jean Kilbourne puts it, “Ads sell a great deal more than products. They sell values, images, and concepts of success and worth, love and sexuality, popularity and normalcy. They tell us who we are and who we should be.” Hence the rise of Femvertising.

The concept of femvertising has been around for a while - since 2004, in fact, when Dove first released its Campaign for Real Beauty to protest against the stereotypes propagated by most beauty brands. But it wasn’t officially named until 2014, when Samantha Skey, CMO of SheKnows Media, coined the term “femvertising” during an AdWeek panel discussion.

Femvertising, an amalgam of the words “feminism” and “advertising”, is basically advertising with a feminist intention. All the elements of femvertising, from the talent to the messages and the visuals are targeted at empowering women and girls to become better versions of themselves, and also to challenge the negative stereotyping and sexual objectification of females which has been an established practice in the advertising world for many, many years. Femvertising is being employed by an increasing number of brands each year.

Femvertising campaigns include highly inspirational, emotional messages, which seek to promote feelings of affirmation, self-confidence and motivation in female consumers. It disposes of any notion that females are not good enough, and that a product is going to “fix” their flaws. It rejects the use of sexual objectification to please men, but rather harnesses female sexuality in ways that are relevant and authentic. Some of the most popular examples of femvertising globally include the Always 2016 “Like a Girl” campaign, and its follow-up, #Unstoppable, Under Armour sports-apparel brand’s ‘Unlike Any’ campaign, and Audi’s 2017 Super Bowl commercial, “Daughter”.

Femvertising sure has its benefits. It is a powerful tool for the positive social change that feminists around the world are fighting so passionately for, helping to insert positive, empowering messages into the public narrative which has hitherto been filled with negative stereotyping and sexual objectification, and reflecting the highly sought-after ideals of gender equality.

However there is an uglier kind of femvertising which is simply a form of exploitation by companies who are taking advantage of the gender issues that women face to make profit and improve their brand image, with little concern for social change. This is especially true when the brand’s pro-female message contradicts how it runs its business operations from day to day. In the words of Jessica Evans of Independent magazine, it is “capitalism in a wig”.

For example, Dove’s parent company, Unilever, also owns Axe body spray, a brand which is notorious for ad campaigns with misogynistic themes. And Audi, whose “Daughter” campaign advocates gender pay equality, has a board of directors consisting of six men and no women. Some of the companies who practice femvertising have even been sued for workplace sexism, discrimination, and sexual harassment.

What brands need to understand is that feminism is a very serious issue that has sustained a centuries-long battle, and affects women all over the world. When a brand decides to leverage on feminist ideals to resonate with its female consumers, it automatically adopts the responsibility to show the world how it upholds those same ideals within its organization.

Profiting from feminism while promoting misogyny is diabolical, as it creates an illusion of equality that obscures the reality of the struggles women face while underhandedly perpetuating them. It also diminishes feminism to a mere tagline or hashtag, belittling the work of thousands of women who have put their blood and sweat into the cause.

Brands should learn to put their money where their mouth is. Before engaging in femvertising, they should make sure their company policies and practices align with the basic women’s rights demands, such as gender-inclusive hiring at all levels of the organization, equal pay for both men and women, and strong deterrents against sexual discrimination and harassment in the workplace. They could also back this up by going a step further to initiate or fund female empowerment programmes in areas that need them.

We conclude with this article with a piece of advice from content marketing expert Doug Kessler. “Think hard about attaching your brand to things that matter way more than your brand ever could.”


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