Can women buy some empowerment already?
By Evelin Uachave
From the moment corporations and brands realized feminism was here to stay, they decided they might as well capitalize on it. From Dove’s Real Beauty to Pantene’s Sorry Not Sorry Campaign, corporations seem bent on empowering women with the help of lotions, shampoos or pads. But besides making pink razor blades and cute curvier shower gel bottles, how is this new trend impacting the everyday lives of women?
With over 700,000 women serving in combat roles in WW2 and with millions more taking on not only supporting roles for the military, but working as mechanics, industrial workers, builders and clerks, change was eminent. With the end of the war most women realized that they weren’t ready to step back into the pre-war economic structure. The conflict had forever reshaped the social and gender norms and roles in the western world, and this change would lay the social foundations of various civil rights movements that would eventually happen all over the globe.
Few of the movements were perhaps as universal and all-encompassing as Feminism, after all, women did represent half of the world population. Just 20 years after the end of the war, women were no longer trying to prove they deserved access to the same employment opportunities as their male counterparts but fighting and pushing for anti-discrimination laws in the workplace and equal wages.
The feminist movement had gained momentum and women had become independent entities, capable of making their own decisions. With freedoms and access to the job market came the buying power that would revolutionize the advertising sector. Marketing teams now had to cater to a segment of the population that up to now had been largely disregarded. And since Feminism couldn’t be beaten, the brands decided that they might as well capitalize on the movement and join them.
In 1969 Virginia Slims launched one of the first commercials of its kind advertising Virginia Slims. A slimmer, longer and milder cigarette for women. With the tagline “You’ve come a long way, baby” (the tagline would change to “It’s a woman thing” in the 90s), the commercial portrayed a modern liberated woman pointing out that gone were the days when they needed a husband’s permission to enjoy a cigarette. The Virginia Slims Campaign used the movement to sell cigarettes but it also helped mainstream the movement. It took the feminist movement to people’s homes through its TV commercials and more importantly, it made feminism “cool”. It helped define an ideal image of what a modern woman should be throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s. And most of the time that image was of a modern liberated feminist who smoked Virginia Slims. Needless to say that the first ad was a huge success and during the next decade everything from the slogan, the tagline and the layout remained the same. The risk paid off and brands realized that whatever feminism could sell, most women would buy.
While openly supporting the feminist movement in the 1960s was a risky move, today feminism has become a much safer cause. The commodification of feminism by mainstream brands just doesn’t bring the same value to the movement. The Dove Real Beauty Campaign despite helping start the conversation about important issues such body image and unrealistic beauty standards, is also selling an idea, an image of what a woman should be, and how she could attain that – in this case a modern woman who is comfortable with her own body and buys Dove products. And while one could argue that’s their strategy is the same as the one from Virginia Slims, it’s important to highlight that they are bringing considerably less value to the feminist cause as whole. And as more and more brands jump on the feminist advertising bandwagon, the value they bring continues to consistently decrease with critics arguing that this type of advertising sells the idea that equality/empowerment can be bought on the shelves of any supermarket in a shampoo or lotion bottle, that buying pink sneakers or a certain sportswear brand meaningfully contributes to the cause.
On the other hand we must consider the alternatives. While some brands are using the feminist cause to drive sales and therefore generate profit, they are still doing it in a more careful manner than for example, GAP’s “Social Butterfly” sweaters for girls and “Little Scholar” sweater for boys campaign which perhaps unconsciously contributes to the perpetuation of negative stereotypes.
As brands try to find means to connect to their audiences, they will inevitably get involved in causes that matter to their buyers. This involvement can sometimes bring substantial gains to the cause that comes in form of donations to charities and organizations supporting that cause or more ethical business practices, or it can result in a “feel good message” and a free keychain with your usual product or service. Either way, something good will come out of it, even if it’s just a conversation over a Dove pear shaped body lotion bottle about how beauty comes in different shapes.