Faux Activism in Recent Female-Empowering Advertising

By Alyssa Baxter
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2015, Vol. 6 No. 1 | pg. 2/3 |

IV. Methodology

Content analysis was used to examine portrayals of women in recent video advertisements for six brands owned by two different companies, Procter & Gamble and Unilever. These two were chosen for analysis because, according to Forward of Seeking Alpha, they are “two of the world’s largest and most successful suppliers of consumer goods” (Forward par. 1). The companies offer large selections of brands that can be used in a research sample. The companies also market gender-specific products. By looking at brands distinctly targeting men and women and the messages their ads send out, this study tried to find out whether companies distribute the same messages regardless of the products advertised or they send out messages just for more profits to the extent that ad-her-tisements represent faux activism.

Advertisement Campaigns To Be Analyzed

The advertising videos from the following six brands were analyzed: two ad-her-tising cases and two male-targeted advertisements from Procter & Gamble and one ad-her-tising and one male-targeted advertisement from Unilever.

  • Ad-her-tising: Pantene “Not Sorry | #ShineStrong” 2014 and Always “#LikeaGirl” 2014 from Procter & Gamble; and Ad-her-tising: Dove “Patches” 2014 from Unilever
  • Male-targeting brands: Gillette “First Girlfriend vs. First Real Girlfriend” 2014 and Oldspice “Hot Tub” 2014; and Male-targeting brands: Axe “The Clean Cut Look” 2014 from Unilever

The ad-her-tising sample above was selected based on articles by Creative Review, Ad Age, The Guardian and PSFK, which covered the most prominent ad-her-tising videos between April and October 2014. The male-targeting sample was selected among prominent and notoriously male-targeted brands from the same two companies when their brands were advertised in the same time frame of the corresponding ad-hertising advertisements. The male-targeted ads of Gillette, Oldspice and Axe have been previously noted for producing advertisements exhibiting the opposite of female-empowering ideals.

Research Questions

Ad-her-tising is nothing more than a trend that gets people to buy products.

By participating in this trend, companies take advantage of feminism as a legitimate source of activism. The goal of the companies is to make the consumer believe they are passionate about a cause while not necessarily believing in the messages they send.

In order to examine this thesis, the following research questions were raised:

  • RQ1: Are the parent companies (Unilever and Procter and Gamble) of the ad-her-tising campaigns promoting the same message regarding female empowerment through both female- and male-targeted brands?
  • RQ2: Are the parent companies supporting gender equality across all advertising messages?
  • RQ3: How does the answer to RQ2 reflect their motives, morals and behaviors as a company and brand?
  • RQ4: Are the ads for feminine beauty products that empower women contradicting the messages they send with the products they sell?

V. Findings

First, the author described how coding was done and what she found through content analysis of the six advertisements.


After viewing the advertisements, the author saw the following two categories of themes emerge: categories hinting at the stereotypes associated with female-empowering behavior and submissive female behavior/male-dominating behavior. These two categories represent advertisements that manifest empowerment or submissive characteristics as their main themes by incorporating the following undertones:

    Empowerment undertones:

  1. The woman/women is/are shown in a position of power.
  2. The video blatantly shows a breakthrough of traditional gender norms and societal-perceived perceptions.
  3. The woman/women in the video is/are highlighted for their “natural beauty.”
  4. Submissive undertones:

  5. The woman/women in the video is/are seen as subservient to the man/men.
  6. The woman/women in the video is/are defined as a prop.
  7. The woman/women in the video is/are sexualized.

Definitions of Terms

Since the terms are abstract, the author operationalized them for this study.

  1. Position of power:
  2. Position of power for the purpose of this research is defined as a role in which one possesses a noticeable authority. Positions of power in the professional setting would include top executives, group leaders, top discussants during meetings and top decision makers within a profession. Leading a talk, introducing an idea, or making final decision can indicate this position. A position of power outside of a professional setting is defined as noticeably having the ability to directly influence others’ behavior throughout a course of events. This definition also covers another layer, such as a woman’s power of her own thoughts, body, decisions, actions, feelings, etc.

  3. Breakthrough of traditional gender norms and societally perceived perceptions:
  4. Traditional gender norms usually follow stereotypes indicated by society. According to Boundless, a large online academic resource for multiple disciplines including psychology, “masculine roles are usually associated with strength, aggression, and dominance, while feminine roles are usually associated with passivity, nurturing, and subordination” (Key Points section, par. 1). A breakthrough of these roles is defined as a gender possessing those opposite to their own stereotypical roles. This also includes a breakthrough of societally perceived perceptions and traditional gender norms of women. For example, this happens if a woman changes her perception on a traditional female stereotype about herself or females in general. This includes societal perceptions of women often not regarding themselves as beautiful, lacking confidence or downplaying their intelligence.

  5. Natural beauty:
  6. Natural beauty, for the purpose of this research, includes personality and internal attributes as well as physical appearance. Natural beauty refers to a woman/women who exhibit(s) beauty through confidence, self-awareness and comfort within her skin. This can be done with the absence of additives to their appearance including excessive makeup or hair care. However, this does not mean that physical upkeep and physical appearance with cosmetic aid dismisses natural beauty entirely.

  7. Subservient to man/men:
  8. For the purpose of this research, the women/woman portrayed as subservient to the man/men in the video are seen as secondary, submissive, less important, passive, obedient and compliant in relation to the male(s). More specifically, this includes cases where a woman speaks less than the men/man, does what the men/man command(s), modifies her behaviors because of the behaviors of the male, and is blatantly seen as secondary to the male. This also includes a woman being seen as a “prize” or being something the male obtains.

  9. Prop:
  10. This covers cases where a woman shows little emotion, mimics her actions to the desire of the male, speaks very little to not at all, and uses her body as the main representation of herself.

  11. Sexualized:
  12. For this study, a woman would be defined as being sexualized in a video if she has minimal clothes such as a bra, underwear, or bikini; tight-fitting clothes, including tight dresses, skirts or shirts; excessive skin exposure, including cleavage from low shirts and dresses, high slits in skirts or dresses or exposed midriffs. This definition includes comments on a woman’s appearance by a male as well and any verbal language pertaining to the sexualization of women, such as desire, lust or irresistibility for a man.

    The six video advertisements were analyzed along the six categories. When the theme of each category was manifested through the advertisement, yes (Y) was chosen; no (N) was chosen otherwise; and change (C) was chosen if there was a shift in how a person was perceived between the beginning of the video and its end.

Table 1: Themes of six advertisements from Procter and Gamble (P & G) and Unilever

Table 1: Themes of six advertisements from Procter and Gamble (P & G) and Unilever

VI. Analysis

The content analysis of ad-her-tising and opposition videos of the Unilever and Procter & Gamble brands answered the four research questions:

Regarding RQ1--Are the parent companies (Unilever and Procter and Gamble) of the ad-her-tising campaigns promoting the same message regarding female empowerment through both female and male brands?--the parent companies of the ad-her-tising campaigns are not promoting the same message of female empowerment through both the female and male brands they represent. The ad-her-tising advertisements have strong messages of female empowerment (9 out of 6 areas above) and negation of secondary female roles ( 9 out of 9 areas), while the male brand advertising displays strong messages of female subordination and negate female empowerment (in all areas). In the Dove “Patches” advertisement, the conclusion of advertisement is with a woman exclaiming, “I’m beautiful, I’m strong, I’m independent, and I can be whoever I want to.” Pantene makes similar nods to women empowerment with its “#ShineStrong” advertisement at the end telling women, “Don’t be sorry. Be strong and shine.” Always similarly says in its “#LikeAGirl” advertisement, “Let’s make #LikeAGirl mean amazing things. Join us to champion girls’ confidence at Always. com.” Both parent companies make blatant efforts to show the strength and highlight a woman’s confidence through the messages they send in their advertisements for women’s products.

The same parent companies display the opposite themes in advertisements for male-targeted products. In Gillette’s “First Girlfriend vs. First Real Girlfriend” advertisement, the brand objectifies women while comparing them to razors. The advertisement says, “At some point every man is ready for his first real girlfriend, just as he’s ready for his first real razor.” Old Spice’s “Hot Tub” advertisement shows a robotic man in a hot tub with three women wearing only bikinis. The point of this advertisement is that one doesn’t even have to be a human male to attract women. The tagline, “Smell like a man from head to toes,” denigrates a woman’s judgment by suggesting they don’t know the difference between a real man and a robot because of the smell of Old Spice. Additionally, Axe’s “The Clean Cut Look” advertisement for Axe hair products opens the advertisement with a statement that directly negates women empowerment with, “Every single lady on earth is powerless to resist the well-travelled gentleman.”

All of the advertisements studied were between the months of April and October 2014, when the current trend of ad-her-tising was at its peak. This means that the parent companies of Unilever and Procter & Gamble do not promote the same messages of female empowerment in their advertisements both for femaletargeted and male-targeted brands.

Regarding RQ2--Are the parent companies supporting gender equality across all advertising messages?--the two companies do not support gender equality across all advertising messages by exhibiting female-empowering behavior in female-targeted advertisements, and female-disempowering behavior in male-targeted advertisements.

Regarding RQ3--How does the answer reflect their motives, morals and behaviors as a company and brand-- it is important to consider brand activism. As discussed in the literature review, Cone, Feldman and DaSilva explained how brand activism attempts to “enhance their [brand] reputations, deepen employee loyalty, strengthen ties with business partners, and even sell more products or services” (par. 2). Any company’s chief motive is to generate a profit and drive sales. Recently, this has been accomplished more effectively by a brand latching on to a cause and promoting activism to increase sales by jumping on feminist themes. This does not mean that they truly believe in the messages they incorporated in the female-targeted advertisements because they send out opposite messages through male-targeted advertisements.

What is important to note is the change that occurs in the Dove, Pantene and Always advertisements in relation to the first coding category: “The woman/women is/are shown in a position of power.” To make a point of addressing the gender barrier that feminism is trying to overcome, all of the ad-her-tising videos start with a woman/women in a somewhat powerless position and end with her/them in a powerful position. In the Dove “Patches” advertisement, the women feel powerless over their own confidence, strength and beauty. After the two weeks with the beauty patch and through video diaries, the women realize they have power over their own beauty. In the Pantene “#ShineStrong” advertisement, it begins with the statement, “Why are women always apologizing?” This is followed with a series of scenarios of women who lack power, apologizing to men, taking over an arm rest, handing a child over, asking a question, talking at the same time, etc. The scenarios are later replayed with the women asserting power and not apologizing.

Similarly, Always does this by asking women and men to act out scenarios, such as run like a girl, hit like a girl, and throw like a girl. The responses highlight stereotypical gender portrayals with the participants flailing their arms when running, playing with their hair, or pretending to drop a ball. They are asked to do this again at the end after being asked why they exhibited that behavior to portray women. This time they acted as they would do it normally with no stereotypical exaggerations. Looking at this change throughout the ad-hertisements can relate back to one of the goals of third-wave advertisements discussed by Lueptow. Linguistics in the sense of shaping culture through gender-specific vernacular and identification by language is what this change throughout the course of the ad-her-tisement alludes to.

This finding shows how the brands Dove, Pantene and Always are creating their messages to mimic feminist views of society, but their motives and morals for these advertisements remain the same, that is, to create a profit.

Regarding RQ4--Are the ads for feminine beauty products that empower women contradicting the messages they send with the products they sell?—the answer is positive. The feminine stance of the brands analyzed in this study is negated with the products they sell. This was distinctly seen with Dove.

Dove, the brand of feminine beauty products that aim to make women more beautiful with softer skin and smoother and silkier hair, promotes “real beauty,” and sells products to make women more beautiful. At the end of their advertisement “Patches,” it states, “Beauty is a state of mind.” It claims that beauty is a state of mind, but if this is true, why would women need to buy any of its beauty products? This statement directly contradicts the products it sells.

Johnston and Taylor, who addressed this finding in their case study, wrote, “Dove’s approach, which we term feminist consumerism, encourages women to channel dissent and practice self-care by engaging with corporate marketing campaigns and purchasing beauty products. Although broadly accessible, Dove’s critique of beauty ideology is diluted by its contradictory imperative to promote self-acceptance and at the same time increase sales by promoting women’s consumption of products that encourage conformity to feminine beauty ideology. The Dove campaign does not decenter the role of beauty in women’s lives, but rather suggests that beauty and self-acceptance can be accessed through the purchase of Dove beauty products.”

With Pantene, the brand’s “#ShineStrong” advertisement sends women the message to be strong, don’t apologize, and instead take command over situations. Thinking back to the products Pantene sells— shampoo, conditioner and other hair products—are women supposed to achieve confidence and power by using their products? The connection doesn’t make sense because there is no final call to action other than to stop apologizing and also use Pantene’s Pro-V shampoo. Always similarly exhibits this same product-message disconnect.

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