A project of the Manship School of Mass Communication, LSU
By Miglena Sternadori
Gender Co-Editor, Media Diversity Forum
(July 31, 2014) - Media’s coverage of the latest PSA-like, pro-gender-equity ads following in the steps of Dove’s Real Beauty campaign has left me frustrated. Not that I dislike the ads. Not that I disagree with their general message. And not that I am so enlightened that I boycott all beauty products.
What bothers me is the frequent lack of social and historical context. Its omission leads some journalists (and many of my students) to assume that these ads somehow signify progress. For example:
• This Great Ad Reveals All the Ways We Hold Girls Back
• #SorryNotSorry: How ads empower women
• The 7 Most Inspiring Ad Campaigns for Women in 2013
If you want further proof that marketers are not really that much into you (and your empowerment or whatever), here is another pearl of Ad Age’s wisdom. Just consider “using one massive brand to lead a charge against the use of photoshop and overly-skinny models to set unrealistic ideals of beauty for women, while at the same time marketing another brand that all but promises young men that those exact same unrealistic women will throw themselves at them (literally) if only said young men use enough body spray.” Essentially, cosmetics companies want to sell “empowerment” to women on one hand while selling women as traditional sex objects to men with the other. Unilever is a point in case. Devious, no?
I would suggest the following points to consider in future stories about “empowering” ads:
1. Feminist appeals have been used to sell goods for a long time. The appropriation of feminism for marketing purposes has been dubbed “commodity feminism,” and represents a trend that has been in full swing in the last decade. Dove, Verizon, Pantene, and P&G are totally unoriginal. Freud’s nephew and PR guru Edward Bernays came up with the idea in 1929, when he sent 10 young women on a "Torches of Freedom” march to light up cigarettes in public, an unladylike behavior at the time. Bernays couldn’t care less about gender equity. He was simply trying to sell the products of American Tobacco Company, as detailed in Malcolm Gladwell’s piece The Spin Myth. Also, remember the “You’ve come long way, baby” Virginia Slims campaign? Read Adrian Shirk’s piece The Death of The Cool Feminist Smoker. And it’s not just cigarettes. Ford did the same thing with early models of the Mustang in the 60s (“Everything you could ask for on a secretary’s salary”), and IBM used a feminist appeal in an ad in 1985.
2. Corporate pro-social appeals are intended to boost companies’ image, not change the world. Corporate social responsibility programs, such as Phillip Morris’s youth prevention campaign, have been found to be not only inefficient in preventing unhealthy behavior, but also to increase teenagers’ favorable attitudes toward cigarette companies. See, for example, these 2012 and 2002 articles from the American Journal of Public Health. One might argue, this is an unfair comparison because Dove, Pantene, and P&G do not produce harmful products like cigarettes. Really? Many products made by what scholar Laura Kipnis calls “the feminine-industrial complex” contain potentially cancerous substances, such as phthalates, parabens, lead, and several others listed by the Breast Cancer Fund and also by the book There is Lead in Your Lipstick. Many of these substances are banned outside the U.S. because of their damaging health and environmental effects. Isn’t it more empowered to read the labels than to buy skin and hair products just because their ads are kind of feminist?
3. Advertising is ideology. Philip Kotler, the father of marketing, famously said that you don’t sell lipstick, you sell hope (namely, that you will be loved). This represents the ideology that a woman needs a man to make her complete, and also that she needs to be proactive to make this happen. This is how ads work (even if this is the only thing I remember from my 7 a.m. marketing class in college). Let me give you another example. In the last half-season of Mad Men, Don Draper and Peggy Olson came up with the genius idea to promote fast food to women who felt guilty for getting takeout instead of making a real dinner. Good bye, guilt – hello, empowerment! Peggy and Don reframed the problem into an empowering narrative that fit the family ideology of the decade. Similarly, Clairol’s hair dye ads “Does she or doesn’t she?” (during a time when hair dying was socially unacceptable) and L’Oreal’s slogan “Because I’m worth it” worked as what Malcolm Gladwell calls “psychological furniture,” allowing women to conform to social norms while also appearing to have fun. So what could be the ideology is behind the new girl power ads? Pro-feminist beauty product campaigns encourage women to feel like their own mini-versions of Sheryl Sandberg (who I seriously doubt uses Pantene to wash her hair), but the ideology is still to fit social norms and have a feminine appearance.
I know it is difficult to consider so much context on deadline or include it in a short news story. Just being aware of these things, however, might help one frame a story differently. Plus, it’s helpful in laughing at Vogue’s 2013 Halloween costume advice:
If the position of women and our success in the workplace has been gaining ground during the last half century, you wouldn’t know it from … Blazin’ Hot Firefighter, Stop Traffic Sexy Cop, and Hospital Honey Nurse … Who would buy a flimsy, nasty black cape and a dumb pointy hat when she could be a ravishing witch in a Yohji Yamamoto Y’s cropped cape coat for $440 with a flurry of pea-green Chanel Epatant Illusion d’Ombre eye shadow standing in for rouge on her cheeks? … But despite the imperatives of feminism and the fact that this is, after all, the twenty-first century, perhaps you are one of the legions of women who are hell-bent on using October 31 as an excuse to walk the streets like a literal streetwalker. To which I shrug and say, okay, well then at least purchase a beautiful L’Agent by Agent Provocateur polka-dot flocked tulle basque for $150, or a rhinestone-inflected teddy for $78 from Victoria’s Secret.
To which, like Liz Lemon, I roll my eyes.
Posted on July 31, 2014