Faux Activism in Recent Female-Empowering Advertising

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


This study content analyzed six brands from Unilever and Procter & Gamble, whose advertisements promoted both male-targeted products and female-targeted ones. The study examined three female-empowering advertisements and three male-targeted, or “opposition” advertisements. It concluded that companies producing these female-empowering advertisements are not truly supporting the feminism activist movement, but are manipulating consumers for bigger profits with faux activism for feminism. By shedding light on this recent trend of “ad-her-tising,” this study found that not all brand activism is genuine.

I. Introduction

Companies have increasingly leveraged feminism as a successful selling tactic in contemporary advertising. What media once painted as unfriendly and negative has evolved into female empowerment. Recently, the term “ad-her-tising” has been coined. Some believe that the overwhelming burst of female-empowering ads is an example of faux activism rather than truly empowering the women they target.

Historically, feminism and female influence in advertising have been utilized as a marketing ploy. In the 1960s, the Virginia Slims campaign leveraged a woman’s independence to sell cigarettes with the “You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby” slogan. In 2004, the Dove Real Beauty campaign offered a modern women-empowering take; in 2014, a decade later, ad-her-tising is more prominent than ever. However, what these companies are really engaging in is not real activism, but faux activism because women are used as little more than objects. The same companies used opposite messages for male-targeted brands. By participating in this trend, companies are taking advantage of feminism as a source of activism. Thus, one advertising strategy used by companies is to make consumers believe they are passionate about a cause, while not necessarily believing in the messages they distribute.

By examining companies that produce several brands—female and male targeted—this study investigated whether these advertisers are merely leveraging a marketing fad. In other words, ad-her-tising may be nothing more than a trend that gets individuals to buy products.

II. Literature Review

A number of researchers have studied advertising as it relates to females and sexuality portrayals or how feminism is portrayed by the media. This paper focused on women portrayed in women-empowering roles in modern advertising, a topic that had not been widely investigated. By examining recent advertising campaigns that promote she-power and how they fit into the modern feminist movement, this paper aimed to explore the validity of corporate activism.


Many feminists today believe that society is in the midst of a third wave of feminism. It is important to understand the goals and components of this current wave of feminism to better understand the current audience to ad-her-tising. As Lueptow wrote in Everyday Feminism, an online feminism magazine, what is different about this wave compared to previous ones is that feminists have “different viewpoints on the same feminist issues” (par. 4). Mack-Canty, third-wave feminism researcher also explained, “’While third-wave feminism often finds tenets from an assortment of foundational theories useful, it works to begin from the situated and embodied perspectives of different(ising) women’” (155).

Everyday Feminism has defined the third-wave of feminism as embodying five things: knowledge, linguistics, listening, intersectionality and equality of opportunity. Knowledge of the goal of equality and sharing that knowledge is a crucial part of the movement. Linguistics is popular in the third-wave in the sense of shaping culture through gender-specific vernacular and identification by language. Listening to the cultural messages is one of the most important goals of feminism as well. In the current movement of equality, intersectionality is especially important because without the inclusion of all races, sexualities, genders and lifestyles, it is hypocritical. Lastly, equality of opportunity in the third-wave of feminism aims to shake cultural stereotypes for both women and men. It is important that equality applies to all genders because “feminism is also about men’s issues because patriarchy is detrimental to male-self actualization as well” (Lueptow, Equality of Opportunity sec., par. 14 ).

As discussed in Snyder’s “What Is Third-Wave Feminism? A New Directions Essay,” what is different about this current wave of feminism from previous waves is: “Unlike their mothers’ generation, who had to prove themselves, third-wavers consider themselves entitled to equality and self-fulfillment . . . ”(Snyder, Moving Beyond Generational Conflict sec., par. 4). With this new wave of feminism, feminists feel entitled to equality rather than making a fighting case for it as previous waves have. Relating this message of third-wave feminism to consumerism and self-fulfillment through empowerment, women may feel inclined to have the empowerment expressed in female-empowering advertisements not be so obvious and instead have it be more natural as if it wasn’t a certain sector of advertising. Overall, with third-wave feminism, rights and equality are expected to be goals already obtained.

Brand Activism

Cause marketing, which aligns a brand with a cause, is becoming increasingly important for consumers to consider when choosing brands to purchase. According to a 2013 Cone Communications/Echo Global CSR Study, with comparable price and quality, 91% of global consumers are likely to switch to a brand associated with a good cause (“Statistics Every Cause Marketer”). Advertisers have been picking up on this fact and have been aligning with a cause that reflects the brand. Cone, Feldman and DaSilva agreed that brands associated with cause marketing benefit in many different areas: They are more attractive to stakeholders; are able to differentiate themselves from similar brands; “enhance their reputations, deepen employee loyalty; strengthen ties with business partners; and even sell more products or services” (par. 2).

Feminists who see the brand aligned with women-empowering advertisements may be more concerned with seeing change rather than awareness and surface-level activism. In their journal article, “Feminist Consumerism And Fat Activists: A Comparative Study of Grassroots Activism And The Dove Real Beauty Campaign,” Johnston and Taylor argued that “A feminist account of activism may be more concerned with gauging whether and how particular groups subvert the gender status quo, rather than determining whether it can be defined as political” (17).

Female Consumerism

It is important to understand the female consumer because that is the target of the ad-her-tising ads. The habits of consumerism—defined as “the buying and using of goods and services—and the belief that it is good for a society or an individual person to buy and use a large quantity of goods and services” (“Definition of Consumerism”) have little changed among female consumers through the decades. What have changed are the messages that are sent to the consumers through advertising.

As O’Barr explains in his “A Brief History of Advertising in America,” in the twentieth century, 80 percent or more of day-to-day household purchases were by women. In 2011, women accounted for 83 percent of consumer purchases in the United States (Bailik). Females have historically been targeted by ad agencies because consumers were predominantly female. On the other hand, advertisers were predominantly male.

Feminist consumerism has the potential to disrupt gender norms and aid in the evolution of a newer and broader cultural definition of consumerism (Johnston and Taylor). They wrote, as Deseret News National writer Chandra Johnson quoted in her news article: “Feminist consumerism tends to obscure and minimize both structural and institutionalized gender inequalities that are difficult to resolve and that might cause negative emotional associations with brands” (Johnson, section, par. 4).

III. Background and Direction


There is little scholarly research about ad-her-tising. It is the topic, however, of popular media, trade publications and online discussions. Essentially, ad-her-tising is defined as female-targeted advertising that exhibits qualities of empowering women, feminism, female activism, or women leadership and equality. The present study approached ad-her-tising through a content analysis. Before that, however, a discussion of adher- tising in popular and trade media will provide an understanding of the issues surrounding ad-her-tising.

Recent Media Discussions of Ad-her-tising

The genesis of this research began with the recent burst of articles in trade publications, news sources and opinion pieces about ad-her-tising. These articles were especially prominent between April and October 2014. Just about all of these sources had a common theme among them—marketing feminism is a trend.

In a recent article, “How Feminism Became a Great Way to Sell Stuff—A Recent Spate of ‘Feminist’ Adverts Shows Adland Belatedly Discovering Women’s Rights as a Marketing Ploy,” in The Guardian, Mahadawi expressed her opinion that the “brave new world of consumer-friendly feminism” is through the approaches of pseudo-psychoanalytical, sad soundtrack based feminism, sexism-positive feminism and radically literal feminism. She also mentioned the term ad-her-tising as it relates to the type of advertising that women seek.

In “Buy This, Empower Women: How Advertisers Use Feminism,” in Deseret News National, Polatis reported on the news and opinion articles that have surfaced from the overwhelming influx of feminist adverts. Referencing Mahadawi’s article in The Guardian, Polatis summarized the opinions of critics and bloggers that companies are wrong to use female-empowering ads to sell toys—notably GoldieBox’s efforts to make more girls interested in engineering. GoldieBox is a company with the main objective to encourage girls to build and engineer. The company created a main character that is described as “adorable, blonde and skinny” and the building toys are described in the article as being “girly colors” with products including “ribbons and fluffy animals.” The criticism around this GoldieBox product is that it still puts girls back in the “pink aisle” when the product aimed to get them out. This article prompted a blog post in 2014 by the James Madison University Women’s Student Caucus titled “#QuickHit: Using Feminism to Leverage Marketing Strategies.”

In “10 Worst Ways Companies Have Used Feminism to Sell Women Products” in Mic, Plank looked at drastic cases, including Virginia Slims, Kellogg’s, Dove and Campbell’s and explained that companies jumping on the feminist bandwagon have not reinvented the wheel. Pantene’s “Sorry Not Sorry” prompted Plank to write the article. Discussing the marketing phenomenon, she asked, “ . . . why are so many companies these days demanding, as a marketing plot, that women change?” The essence of the article showed that corporate feminism has always mingled with feminism .

In “Brands join new wave of feminism” in Creative Review, Williams suggested that the new wave of feminism that has surfaced over the recent years has become mainstream and has been encouraged by advertising agencies. The recent outpour of feminist advertisements also showed that agencies are discovering what people might share online and what content might go viral.

In “‘Girl-Positive’ Ad Campaigns Support Feminist Consumer Discourse,” Weaver of PSFK noted that mid-June of 2014 saw a spike in girl-positive campaigns for feminine health and hygiene products. There is some question about whether or not these are a ploy, but the bottom line is that the ads have people talking, watching and listening.

In “Worst sales pitch ever: The ad industry’s shameless history of using feminism to sell products: In the age of ‘empowertising,’ it’s worth asking whether feminism should be treated as a brand at all,” Zeisler mentioned the recent outpour of female-empowering ads from brands, including Dove, Verizon and Always. Her article suggested that what the brands are selling isn’t exactly clear. The recent push for brands to get behind a cause is prevalent, but the main question now is if consumers who buy based on the advertisements will take further steps to support feminism.

In “How feminism and marketing became bedfellows—and how it’s changing,” Johnson discussed some of the recent advertisements—Dove’s Real Beauty and Pantene’s Sorry Not Sorry—and some of the opinions that have surfaced. Some feel that feminist advertisements are raising awareness about important issues even though their end game is selling a product. Johnson also talked about faux activism and the possibility that feminism could coexist with a commercial goal. She concluded, “Feminism as a marketing tool might be an effective business strategy, but it drastically oversimplifies the issues.”

“Female Empowerment in Ads: Soft Feminism or Soft Soap? Go-Girl Marketing Is the Hot New Trend. But Are These Ads Culture-Changing or Simply ‘Pinkwashing?’” explained that industry experts expect that brands will continue to jump on the female-empowering bandwagon. With increased pressure for brands to get behind a cause and be an activist brand, there was also a concern that female-empowerment advertisements could backfire due to their ultimate goal to make a profit and sell a product.

History of Advertising

According to William M. O’Barr in A Brief History of Advertising in America, advertising and media have had a relationship in print media since the 1600s. Advertisements have been an element that has fueled development of media and rise of consumerism. Beginning in Colonial America, advertising was directed at basic products—coffee, spices, porcelain, etc.— from around the world. As the commercial world evolved along with increased globalization, so did advertising. In the 1700s, advertising took a more personal approach and began to tell stories about the products. Newspapers began to be the most cost-efficient way to advertise, and the mid-1800s was the “age of the newspaper advertisement” (10). Moving into the twentieth century, the salesman was the new method of advertising and the slogan became popular.

Branding didn’t come into play until the twentieth century. With branding came a personality to the products. “When branding did emerge as part of marketing, it opened the door for a new kind of advertising— arguing not simply the virtues of the commodity itself but also for a particular brand” (O’Barr 7). As commercial messages became delivered via radio, illiteracy was no longer a hindrance to giving a literal voice to products in advertisements. Television in the mid-twentieth century presented a completely new perspective on how consumers view advertising with sound and sight. When the Internet took control in the 1990s, advertising was completely revolutionized with a new wave of globalization. All traditional advertising outlets have been negatively affected, with some more than others, but have not completely faded out.

In terms of audience, ads have always been female targeted since women make up the majority of consumers. Even though the vast majority of consumers was female, and is still female, it has been the male voice that was behind the selling. How to make housework easier, how to be “proper” mothers and wives, how to be passive and domestic were all messages of twentieth century advertising until the 1970s. “It was not until the rebirth of feminism in the 1970s that advertising began to let women speak for themselves, use women as authority figures, and employ women in decision-making and creative roles in the advertising industry” (18). The shedding of the housewife image and the introduction of a woman authority figure were brought in by a new wave of feminism, changing the way advertisers market to women forever.

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