Lead Forensics

Feminism and Advertising: How do we Avoid the Pitfalls?

by Caitlin Lewis

09 March 2020


In a ‘woke’ obsessed world where words like ‘you’re cancelled’ are on the tip of everyone’s tongues, a brand is as much about what it stands for as what it does. Getting behind a cause is now a great way to boost brand purpose and engage a younger, socially conscious audience.

One of the most popular stances that brands align themselves with nowadays is feminism. It’s no longer ‘The F Word’, met with visions of bra-burning and alienation; it now not only engages but sells.

The mainstream acceptance of feminism as a positive force in the world of ads has resulted in a lot of progressive campaigns that challenge age-old stereotypes that still plague our industry. Last year, the RAF launched a campaign that mocked sexist clichés and emphasised the bravery and hard work of the female soldiers. The tongue-in-cheek contrast between a soldier tackling challenges in the field with a voice-over stating ‘I want a lip gloss that stays on whatever life throws at me’ addresses and mocks clichés.

Other brands have launched similar campaigns: Always’ #LikeAGirl campaign sought to turn the idea of ‘throwing like a girl’ on its head; Bodyform’s #Bloodnormal campaign fought to tackle period-shaming; and the National Lottery-funded Sport England initiative ‘This Girl Can’ was launched to celebrate and encourage women in sport.

So, the dawn of mainstream, popularly accepted feminism can only be a good thing, right? Not necessarily. Among the good examples that address issues, there have been some campaigns that have rather missed the mark. Criticism fell on the shoulders of Karl Largefeld in 2014, when he designed his Chanel runway show at Paris Fashion week as a faux-feminist protest. Size zero teenage models holding placards with Female Liberation slogans left a sour taste for many of the onlookers, especially given the ongoing issues that the fashion industry poses to feminist progress. The motif of a protest used without addressing any of the reasons behind it was seen to belittle the cause. (The same was said to criticise Pepsi’s disastrous Live for Now campaign).

What’s the problem with using feminism as a trendy motif? Surely, it’s still a good thing having the cause represented and alluded to? Well ask yourself this: who’s benefitting? An Etsy mug with ‘Male Tears’ on the front may make the consumer feel like they’re doing their bit, but ultimately it’s doing nothing for the cause. The only one benefitting is the brand themselves.

Representation of any political issue becomes much more shaky ground in commercial content due to the reason the cause is being highlighted. Campaigners highlight a cause to make a change. Brands often do so for a different reason- to sell something. Thus, the only issues that would be worth using commercially need to be marketable. Empowering women to ‘reclaim their beauty’ by buying a perfume is much easier than highlighting some of the less marketable issues of feminism, such as domestic abuse or assault.

There’s a big difference between a campaign like Always’s ‘Like a Girl’ campaign, which addresses and aims to tackle a sexist issue, and generic adds that limply use feminism jargon to sell an unrelated product. Seems convenient too that more often than not, these ‘feminist’ ads are targeted at middle-class white women, the ones who typically have the most buying power.

The trouble with ill-thought out campaigns that use feminism as a fashionable backdrop is that they often harm the cause more than help it. Think about it: a ‘body positive’ campaign that claims there’s more than one way to be beautiful may think its empowering women, but this limp generic tag line is actually just telling woman that being beautiful is, and indeed should be, a central concern in their lives! And doing so in the name of feminism contradicts the movement rather than reinforces it.

 So, what can be done? My view is the best way to understand a cause is to embed it in your brand values. That 67% of Guerillascope’s workforce is female is a source of great pride, but the picture isn’t so rosy elsewhere in the advertising and media industries. A recent article in The Guardian estimated 29% of staff, and only 12% of creative directors, are women.

How can a brand preach about equal rights and opportunity without promoting the representation of women within their own company? It’s no wonder the core issues of the movement are being overwritten by less disruptive, more marketable narratives when the people most familiar with the issues are not represented in an organisation!

 So, before commercialising the cause, we encourage you to look inward. Do you as a brand reflect this stance? If not, why not? This is the best way to maintain the integrity of feminism as an issue – plus it stops you smearing your brand reputation with a clunky, poorly researched campaign.

It’s not enough to box tick or have a flimsy ‘Be Yourself’ tag line while continue to profit from the very systems these causes seek to eradicate. Brands should start with making changes themselves and go forward from there. This stuff is important. Treat it that way.

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