By DEBORAH LUBANGA
In a brightly lit studio, director Lauren Greenfield asked several teens and young adults what it meant to act “like a girl.” Doing the first thing that came to mind, a young woman flailed her legs and complained about messing up her hair as she ran “like a girl.” A man clawed at the air in front of him as he fought “like a girl.” And a boy barely extended his arm as he threw “like a girl.” In contrast, another group – girls ages 5 to 13 years old – showed off how fast they sprint, how hard they jab, and how well they pitch. Condensed into a roughly three-minute video, the social experiment explored how the meaning of this simple phrase differs among age groups. Dedicated to redefining this insult, the video launched the #LikeAGirl campaign, coincidently sponsored by the feminine hygiene brand Always.
The way this video links Always to a pro-female message is an example of an increasingly popular marketing strategy known as “fem-vertising.” These advertisements use feminist themes, images, and individuals to sell products to women. Dove, which launched the Real Beauty campaign in 2004, was one of the first brands to take this approach. And over the last few years these advertisements have evolved into a genre characterized by hashtag slogans, such as Cover Girl’s #GirlsCan, and short, documentary-style videos, such as Under Armour’s I WILL WHAT I WANT series.
A recent SheKnows media study found that 92 percent of women are aware of at least one of these ad campaigns and 52 percent said that they have purchased a product because they liked the way the brand portrayed women. More than half of the roughly 630 women surveyed were millennials, who are a driving force behind this socially-conscious marketing. Jordan McCormack, a marketing coordinator at a millennial research hub known as The FutureCast, says young people want products that speak to their values. “In order to align with this, we are seeing a lot of top companies moving away from pushing their products and instead promoting their ‘Brand Stands’ [which are] their core values that encompass the entire ecosystem of the brand,” she says.
Although fem-vertising appeals to feminist values, many millennial women aren’t buying the products solely based on these messages. Quality and affordability are still important factors. For Lindsay Weinberg, an 18-year-old student at the University of California, positive messages aid in her decision-making process rather than directing it. “If there are two similar products or if I am trying something new, having a great message would certainly help me make up my mind,” she says. In fact, Weinberg is more incline to try a product with a “girl-power” theme because “any company that respects its customers by displaying how powerful they are deserves business.”
Companies that use empowering messages to reach female customers are enjoying the financial benefits. For example, Adweek reported that Dove’s profits have nearly doubled, from $2.5 billion to $4 billion, since the Real Beauty launch. Meanwhile, Nike’s quarterly sales have seen a 15 percent increase thanks to commercials such as “Voices” and “I Feel Pretty,” which celebrate female athletes.
Beyond selling products, many women believe that the messages in fem-vertisements help break down negative images. For example, New York University student Ashima Goel, 20, likes how Verizon’s Inspire Her Mind commercial reminds us that girls can be more than just pretty. “It gives the audience a strong message to think beyond stereotypes and allow girls to do what they want to do,” says the biology major.
Media critic and literacy educator Jennifer Pozner agrees that these types of advertisements can help challenge stereotypes. However, the Women in Media & News founder warns against taking fem-vertising messages at face value. Instead Pozner says, “We need to interrogate those messages to see if they are as positive and effective as they claim to be.”
Part of this “interrogation” includes considering what product the company is selling with its “go-girl” message. For example, Special K tells women to “Shhhhut Down Fat Talk” while also selling them the “Simple 5 Plan” for weight loss. The advertisement doesn’t acknowledge the fact that the Special K business model relies on the very insecurity they claim to be remedying. This mixed message about body image earned the campaign a spot on Mic’s list of the “10 Worst Ways Companies Have Used Feminism to Sell Women Products.” Other offending brands that made the list include Swiffer, which used Rosie the Riveter to sell their cleaning products, and Snickers, whose commercial featured male construction workers respecting women only because the men were hungry.
The problematic and contradictory messages that sometimes lurk beneath the surface of fem-vertisements are not always easy to uncover. Take Dove for example. The beauty brand has funneled profits from its campaign into a Self-Esteem Project for young girls. However, its parent company Unilever also owns Axe, a male grooming line notorious for its lustful depiction of women, which calls in to question the sincerity of the Real Beauty message. Moreover, it highlights a major complication related to “selling” feminism. As an advocate for media literacy, Pozner urges women to remember that the main goal of these companies is to sell products in the most effective way. While she says there’s no shame in feeling inspired and empowered by the advertisements, “we need to think bigger about what feminism means [because it’s] not simply which product should you buy this week.”