It’s Exploitation When You Sell Feminism and Practice Its Reverse

Christina Boufarah

It’s 1951. You’re walking down the street when you see an ad for Van Heusen men’s shirts. “Show her it’s a man’s world,” it says. It’s 1953. You spot an ad for ketchup bottles. “You mean a woman can open it?” it reads. It’s 1964. There’s an ad for slacks on the sidewalk. “It’s nice to have a girl around the house” it states, emblazoned with the image of a woman’s head under a man’s foot.

It’s 1974. Weyenberg Shoes has just released their newest campaign. A woman lies next to a men’s shoe, the words “Keep her where she belongs” printed at the top.

It’s 2016. Always has just put out an ad, #LIKE A GIRL emblazoned on seemingly every one of their products. What happened? When did women cease to be the punch line of dehumanizing ads, and instead become the target audience of campaigns inciting their empowerment? When did powerful slogans and strong femininity become commonplace in advertising? Or rather, when did feminism become profitable?

Feminism is defined by the Oxford Dictionary as “the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes.” Cambridge Dictionary describes it as “the belief that women should be allowed the same rights, power, and opportunities as men and be treated in the same way”, whilst Webster defines it as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes.” In the corporate world, it’s a selling point.

Advertising is the active promotion of a brand, product, or service, with the intention of (often financial) gain. In recent years, feminism and advertising have become increasingly intertwined in a combination known as “femvertising”. Femvertising seemingly promotes feminism in ads to attract women and increase sales. It’s the “girl power” motto on your pink razor packaging. It’s Gal Gadot, Revlon’s new “feminist” brand ambassador, promoting their celebration and recognition of the “feminine power that’s driving essential cultural conversations” (Krause). That’s to say, it’s everywhere; femvertising has manifested itself in such a variety of ways and in such a multitude of products some might say it is indicative of a social and cultural shift so momentous that it has managed to carve out a place for itself in store shelves, billboards, and boxes.

But this begs the question that the inner skeptic can’t help but ask; is femvertising really the advertising world’s love letter to women, or is it their exploitation of feminism? Exploitation, in its most naive definition, is the utilization of and gain from a resource (be it a person, situation, movement, group, etc…) often at its expense. At first glance, regardless of the impetus behind these marketing decisions, the messages in them are usually true to feminisms core. And how could the same company paying it lip service simultaneously exploit it? It’s simple; it ceases to be feminist when the same companies applying the movement to their ads fail to practice it themselves. It becomes exploitation when corporations utilize feminism for their gain while hindering it. It’s exploitation when you market the efforts of billions of woman, only to counter them yourself.

It’s exploitation when you sell feminism and practice its reverse.

Your Body Wash Changed Advertising

In 2004, Dove released the “Real Beauty” campaign (Katie Martell, Boston Content). It went viral. As its traction grew, so did the praise surrounding it. Doves sales after their “feminist” ad skyrocketed, going from $2.5 billion to $4 billion in the decade after launching the campaign (Katie Martell, Boston Content) ​. But was Dove promoting feminism, or just making use of and benefiting from it? It soon became apparent it was the latter. Unilever, Dove’s parent company, confirmed this when they put out ads for Axe, another company they owned. The ads routinely portrayed woman in a disempowering light.

Often objectifying and sexualizing the women in them, they not only contradicted the other ads Unilever were using to sell Dove products, but further disempowered woman. According to Jean Kilbourne, author of “Killing Us Softly: the Dangerous Way Ads Represent Women”, these images have the potential to do serious harm. She highlights this in her Ted Talk of the same name, where she states, “Girls exposed to sexual advertisements at a young age are more prone to eating disorders, depression, and low self-esteem.” (Kilbourne). Fostering these debilitating ideals in young girls by sending these messages are entirely opposed to feminism, and when the same company furthering this is selling you “feminist” body wash, it calls into question not just the authenticity behind it, but the motives.

However, though Unilever might have pioneered the exploitative nature of femvertising, they certainly didn’t monopolize it. Ads benefitting from feminism exist in abundance, the guiltiest perpetrator being major Western corporations. Take Audi. In February of 2017, Audi released a commercial for the Super bowl with a fairly feminist message behind it; a girl driving an Audi in a car race, as her father looks on, wondering aloud if she’ll be paid differently because of her gender. It ended with a message on Audi’s commitment to creating a more equal environment. But how does that add up with Audi’s practices? As of the ad’s release, its executive team was entirely male (Tolentino). Its fourteen person executive American team had only two women (Rath). Masking its sexist practices with an “empowering” ad, Audi blatantly used feminism as a means to boost sales, while they hindered it behind closed doors. KPMG, a Big Four auditing company, released an ad titled “Glass Ceilings”. The short commercial promoted their involvement and sponsorships in golf, and “commitment to the next generation of women leaders” (Martell, Boston Content). This stands in stark contrast to the $400 million dollar, 1,112 person class action lawsuits they are currently embroiled in, alleging a pattern of gender discrimination, sexual harassment, assault, penalized maternity leave, denied promotions of women, and in extreme cases, disregarded formal complaints of rape within the company (Cohn). These actions alone are sexist; these actions in conjunction with using feminism to boost sales are, again, exploitive, as they use it for financial gain at the movement’s expense.

Other paradigms of this exploitation exist everywhere; it’s Proctor and Gambles musical ad on equal pay when their executive team is 75% male (Martell, Chief Marketer). It’s the State Street Global Advisors “Fearless Girl” campaign that masked a $5 million dollar lawsuit for the alleged underpaying of female executives (Chicago Tribune). As Maria L. Carreon, author of the City University of New York paper, “By Beauty Damned: Millennial Feminism and the Exploitation of Women’s Empowerment in Pop Culture and Corporate Advertising”, states “Simply using the image of a particular demographic and imposing a company logo onto that image does not empower that demographic, particularly if the entity using the image does nothing substantive for that targeted group in a political and economic sense. That is, by definition, exploitation.” (Carreon).

Who Fed this Beast?

Today’s globalized, technologically advanced world has ensured consumers ability to feed or weed out products, corporations, and practices against their morals. Twitterverse, hashtags, blogs, and other outlets used to get word out about companies actions that don’t sit well with consumers have paved the way for a market that moves quick and is often unforgiving in the face of contradicting morals. The increasingly popular “capitalism with consciousness” mantra has cemented itself as a permanent factor in the decision making process of many with the purchasing power to further or hinder a brand. So why does the exploitation marketers call femvertising keep on happening? Why haven’t women themselves boycotted brands pretending to uphold their rights, while they themselves hinder it? The answer is simple and recurrent among the exploited; misinformation. Consumers don’t see the sexist practices behind the “Fearless Girl” statue. They don’t see Unilever’s objectifying Axe ads in their Dove body wash that tells them all women are beautiful. They see a company supporting the ideals they believe in. Women make 85% of household buying decisions (Luscombe), a fact not lost on corporations. Companies made the shift to femvertising since Dove proved feminism could be profitable in 2004, putting out commercials portraying women in a way the average one would respond positively to. Such tactics have proven themselves to be lucrative; 52% of women have purchased a product because they liked the way women were depicted in it (SheKnows Media), and 43% of them said supporting that brand made them feel good (SheKnows Media). In not knowing the practices they are supporting by buying products they believe to be in line with feminism, women inadvertently fuel the companies acting as exploiters, and, by extension, the exploitation.

However, it is important to recognize the efforts being made in advertising to stop this exploitation. Take, for example, Katie Martell of Boston Content (a community group for those in the advertising industry), who has given talks and published work about the misuse of feminism in advertising. She works with companies to ensure their campaigns stay true to its core and has created a “litmus test” to ensure ads promote rather than exploit. Carrie Ingoglia, the Executive Creative Director for the Additive Agency (a “purpose-driven brand consultancy that partners with organizations to transform causes, conversations and communities for good” (Aarons-Mele), is outspoken and uncompromising in her inclusion of genuine feminism in campaigns she helps create (Aarons-Mele).

The Larger Truth behind Your Body Wash

Throughout the time since the birth of advertising, companies have aligned themselves with the feelings of the masses in an effort to use ideals to sell products. Perhaps corporations never set out to exploit feminism, perhaps it was just one in a string of social “movements” companies innocently thought consumers would appreciate them recognizing. But is the purposeful use of a movement that encompasses centuries of the tireless fight for inclusion, equality, and freedom as a convenient selling point ever truly innocent? Is it not the reduction of feminism to an afterthought, a use-when-lucrative, abandon-when-not advertising trend? The fact remains that brands have seen endless financial gain from it, doing it damage in the process by cheapening it and working against it themselves. To exploit feminism is to move beyond exploiting a movement. It is to actively exploit the female fight for justice. It’s easy to be a surface level feminist; it’s easy to manipulate your customers and exploit them in the process, and it’s even easier to forget that at the root of every advertisement is a desire to sell.

But in this new age of “capitalism with consciousness”, it is also much easier to challenge brands to uphold the values they market their products with. The responsibility falls on customers to recognize that a feminist ad does not equate to a feminist company, and to insist on more just practices when it doesn’t. As customers, as proponents, as feminists, the responsibility lies on its upholders to defend it from exploitation. After all, women are in a place to do so now that they weren’t fifty years ago. To quote the infamous Virginia Slims campaign, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

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