In This Episode:
- A definition of what fem-vertising is and how it started.
- Examples of fem-vertising. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
- How we can avoid falling into the trap of bad fem-vertising and walk our talk.
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The Truth About Fem-vertising
When feminist marketing that aimed to empower young girls and women first started showing up, I could not get enough of it. But it slowly morphed from a well-meaning empowerment movement to a marketing ploy without any real support for change. Fem-vertising has become an ugly word. I want to talk about how we, as business owners, can make sure we walk our talk.
Fem-vertising is actually a new word to me.
I knew what feminist advertising was. I didn’t know it had its own colloquial term. In fact, it is a term coined by SHE Media in 2004 and SHE Media chooses a brand to win the Femvertising category every year.
It is advertising or marketing that uses pro-female talent, messages, and imagery to empower women and girls. Which are, of course, important messages to be sharing with the world and for young girls and women to see. As with most things meant to empower, it has become a marketing ploy with no real focus on actually empowering women or young girls in a real way in the world.
This is the problem that I have with it, that other people that I know have with it. They’re using all of the buzzwords that make it sound really good, but nothing is really going on behind the scenes or under the surface that’s actually making a difference.
Examples of Bad Fem-vertising
Some of these companies are perpetuating the problem in their own ways. For a term that started out positively in 2004, I would say that most of my friends and feminist acquaintances have used this word negatively. Because in many cases, it feels like pandering for the sake of having you purchase someone’s product without any real commitment to making a difference.
We’ll talk about some examples of bad fem-vertising.
One of my least favorite fem-vertising campaigns is Pantene’s 2014 Sorry Not Sorry Campaign. If you watch the ad for this one, it’s a ton of situations in which women are apologizing and they don’t need to be. They’re apologizing for speaking up, for interrupting, for taking up space, etc.
I think a message that says you don’t need to apologize for taking up space is very, very important.
If you're going to label yourself as a feminist business, you need to show up in a feminist way. Click To Tweet
I remember when I was younger, I was helping my aunt make a quilt. She’s an amazing quilter and I was helping her make a quilt. I was ten maybe and every single time she would redirect me or correct a stitch, I would immediately apologize to the point where an hour or so into our lesson or quilting session, she was like, “Oh my god, please stop apologizing all the time. I’m just telling you how you can fix the mistakes that you’re making. You don’t need to apologize for making mistakes. That’s how you learn.”
The message here that Pantene is giving you is good. You don’t have to say that you’re sorry all the time. You don’t have to be sorry for taking up space. But it’s a commercial for shiny hair.
It’s a literal example of being told to show up proudly as a woman. Don’t apologize for taking up space, but make sure you do it with shiny hair.
It’s a message that says, “Show up and don’t apologize, but make sure you also conform to the ideal beauty standard that is shiny, bouncy, straight hair.” They’re using this method message ultimately to push a product that upholds an outdated gender norm, which is that women should be conventionally pretty and have shiny hair.
Another one is the Cover Girl’s Girls Can Campaign. This had a bunch of their Cover Girl reps. They’re all famous women. Some of them are athletes, comedians, music artists, actors, etc. They’re like, “Girls can’t be funny,” from Ellen DeGeneres.
First of all, ignore the fact that Katy Perry is in this commercial. She’s problematic AF.
Cover Girl is a beauty brand that’s cashing in on female empowerment without even acknowledging how, as a makeup company that sells anti-wrinkle creams, foundation, and serums for crow’s feet, that it’s been largely a part of this problem for generations.
I’m all for companies changing direction and stepping into a new space and acknowledging where it is that they might have fucked up and doing better, but not without some kind of acknowledgment that you’ve been problematic in the past and how you plan to change that in the future.
Don’t just cash in on women’s empowerment.
You also have to own the shit that you were doing before and pledge to do better in the future. Otherwise, you’re doing the same shit with a different message that makes you sound nice, which is annoying.
So many people don’t even wear makeup. I don’t wear makeup. And to be a brand that’s selling , “If you wear makeup, you’re pretty and you can do all these things,” that’s not really female empowerment. That’s like, “Buy our lipstick and then also remember that you can do whatever you want, as long as you’re wearing Cover Girl lipstick.”
Examples of Good Fem-vertising
That’s not to say that there aren’t good examples of fem-vertising. After all, this was a word born of a positive movement.
Always, the company and brand that makes women’s pads, their Like A Girl campaign is actually one of my favorites. I’ve literally never watched their ‘Like A Girl’ commercial and not been moved to tears. I watched the commercial all the way through again recently and I was in tears.
This whole commercial, and even their whole movement behind this commercial, comes from studies that show when girls hit puberty, their self-esteem typically plummets.
They call it a campaign because it is literally an entire campaign.
They show up and they put their money where their mouth is with the message that Like A Girl is disempowering to young women. If you’ve never seen the commercial, please go watch it. Search it on YouTube.
They ask a bunch of older women that look like they’re in their young twenties to do certain things like a girl. One of them is throwing a ball and they barely try to throw it. One of them is running and they’re saying things like, “Oh, no, my hair.” They asked some young men to do it as well and they do the same thing.
They also asked young girls to do it who are prepubescent and they’re running all out as fast as they can. They’re throwing it hard.
The message then pops up that statistically, young girls around puberty, their confidence goes down. There’s this big discussion about why do we say something like a girl when we mean that you can’t do it as well? Do you think that that’s insulting to young girls?
It is challenging the actors in the commercial to really confront the premise behind that statement. Always’ parent company, which is P&G, began partnering with United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization back in 2011 to support UNESCO’s women and girls’ education advocacy programs. That’s one way of several ways that they’re walking their talk and they’re putting their money where their mouth is.
P&G is the parent company of Always. They’re a sponsor of the Olympic Games. They have one of the biggest sponsorship deals with the International Olympic Committee ever in history because they’re set up to sponsor in the next 5 or 6 games. If you watch the Olympics—I love them—I am glad that they postponed until 2021, but also sad because I love the Olympics.
During the Olympics, it doesn’t matter if it’s Winter or Summer, they run their proud sponsor of mom’s ads. They also sponsor moms to be able to travel to the Olympics and watch their children compete. Every Olympic season, they sponsor a certain number of moms to come to watch their children compete.
They’re working with actual Olympic moms of Olympians to see what their struggles were as their kids were growing up to figure out how else they can partner with young athletes who could potentially go to the Olympics. Which is amazing.
Good femvertising is good, but bad femvertising takes decades of hard work and waters down the message. Click To Tweet
Then you have the TED company, which does things like TED Talks, TEDx, TED-Ed, etc. Always and TED have partnered together to develop confidence and inspiring content through TED-Ed, which is one of their affiliates or child companies, which shares its content free with teachers and students.
TED-Ed is sharing this content free with teachers and students, and Always is helping them develop content that is specifically about inspiring confidence in young women, which I think is amazing.
There is this other company that I love called GoldieBlox. On the about page of their website, GoldieBlox describes themselves as a “disruptive children’s media company challenging gender stereotypes with the world’s first girl engineer character”. We don’t have enough representation for little girls in STEM and things like that, so I think this is absolutely phenomenal.
Their CEO, Debbie Sterling, is actually a Stanford engineer committed to “disrupting the pink aisle,” which I love, by introducing a character named Goldie through a book series and a toy construction set and Goldie is a female kid inventor.
This ad in particular shows three little girls who are sitting on the floor watching TV. They’re watching a princess commercial and you can tell by the looks on their faces that they’re super annoyed with that frilly pink princess culture. You then see them walk through a functioning complex Rube Goldberg machine where something falls over and knock something else, etc.
The machine smashes through or brings to light some stereotypes around young girls and what they should play with. The machine uses gendered toys like dolls and pink dress-up clothes and stuff inside the machine to make the machine work. I loved the commercial itself, but also the core mission of this company is that girls can be whatever they want.
They don’t have to play with dolls. They don’t have to wear pink. They don’t have to be princesses. They can build.
I have an online business so when you’re marketing, I know that the goal is to sell the end result. It’s to sell the ideal, but I also really love when products or businesses can sell you reality that looks just as good.
Organic Valley does this well in their Real Morning Report ad. Because first of all, the ad is based on actual research that Organic Valley conducted as part of a larger commitment to understanding their female customer base. Because women do most of the grocery shopping in the country.
They want to appeal to their female customer base and they included easily verifiable statistics in the video that contrast with what companies want you to believe about what the ideal morning for most women looks like. As I was watching through this commercial, I went through and googled some of the statistics they were giving and they all lined up according to sources that I’ve found.
The commercial contrasts these idyllic, “When I wake up every morning, I eat a super balanced breakfast while I sit in my journaling nook. I enjoy buying organic tofu yogurt.” These are crazy idyllic things and they’re contrasted with the fact that most women are checking their work before 5:00 AM. They have less than five minutes to eat or they named dry shampoos as number one best invention in the last 20 years or something like that.
It’s a nice dose of realism, but it also is backed up by facts. I think what this commercial does well is it’s like, “We get you. We’re not trying to sell you the ideal. We’re trying to meet you where you are”. Which I think is a valuable marketing tool that is not used enough in the world.
I think that’s one of my very favorite commercials ever.
How To Avoid Bad Fem-vertising
Now that we’ve had a chance to look at some terrible examples and some great examples, how can we avoid falling into that bad fem-vertising category? Luckily for us, this answer is actually pretty simple. Because if you preach feminist ideals like equality, inclusivity, speaking up for women of color, family paid leave, then you need to fucking walk your talk.
Do not talk about inclusivity and then line up an all-white panel of speakers for your next event. I’ve seen this far too many times. You cannot tell me that there are not amazing, talented, qualified women of color who can speak at your event or teach in your course.
Even if you don’t know any of them, even if you’re not friends with any of them, you can go out and find them. You can ask other people to recommend them. You can google for them. You can do whatever it takes to meet people who are not all white. So don’t say you’re inclusive and then line up and all-white panel. It’s not a good look.
Don’t talk about loving your body and then sell diets and weight loss as the norm. Don’t tell me that you’re all about body positivity and self-love and then try to sell me your diet program or your exercise regimen. Diet culture is hella problematic and you can love your body without being on a diet.
This one is probably the most egregious one that I see online. I don’t know if people don’t understand or if they don’t want to understand, but please do not support lifting up women of color and then co-opt native language like spirit animal and tribe.
Spirit animals to first nation tribes are very sacred. They are a spiritual practice. They’re not a colloquialism. Please don’t use them as such. It’s very insulting.
Also, a tribe is another thing that white people use. We are not tribes. You can use the word community, family, or group, but you don’t need to describe your ideal group of friends as a tribe because it’s so culturally insensitive.
Again, if you’re going to label yourself as a feminist business, you need to show up in a feminist way. The goal here really is to focus on embodying the things you say you believe. When you inevitably fuck up and get called out because no one is perfect, we’re all going to fuck up at some point, say something problematic, and need to be educated, then you need to own and learn from the mistake and then make a point to do better next time.
Because good fem-vertising is good, but bad fem-vertising takes decades of hard work and waters down the message. Ultimately, propping up brands that sell sparkly pink razors that cost more than blue ones, diet food, gender body wash, this is what bad fem-vertising does. It props up companies that profit off of perpetuating the pink tax and gendered stereotypes.
We are here to break the mold, not perpetuate it. Go out into the world, walk your talk, and influence change all around you.