Feminism has long been used as a marketing ploy, but as consumers become more cynical in a saturated market, is there any way for a brand to get it right?
Stereotyping is alive and well in the marketing messaging of 2017 – just look at the names of our deodorants.
While women douse themselves in a delightful mist of ‘meadow fresh’ or ‘floral dream’ every morning, their male counterparts head straight for the black canister, always labelled with something along the lines of VIKING SHARK THUNDERSNOW. According to the adverts, using such an overtly manly product proves that:
a) They are tough muscle men
b) They are both enthusiastic around, and very capable of attracting, women
c) They could grow a beard if they wanted to, thank you very much
This is the same bloke who – in hundreds of bygone adverts – cannot work out how to properly mop his bathroom floor, or indeed complete any sort of basic household chore. Thank God for the wife who – knowing smile intact – swoops in to save this village idiot-esque character from hurting himself, and lets him go down the pub with his mates instead. Men, eh?
Such stereotypes have been blamed for mental health issues among men, as well as for creating obstacles to men being able to discuss these feelings without fear of being perceived as ‘weak’.
But of course, marketing stereotypes and tropes do not harm only men.
From the prominence of unrealistic female beauty standards to the perpetuation of the ‘a woman’s place is in the home’ myth, marketing aimed at women is often incredibly damaging.
On the TV, little girls dream of being princesses, ballerinas and – of course – mums, while the boys they’re outperforming in the classroom are sold toys to develop their engineering and scientific minds. The perfect woman is portrayed as being beautiful without trying, sexy without ‘asking for it’, subservient, and taking up as little space in the world as possible, both literally and metaphorically.
But isn’t this all a bit passe?
Over the past couple of years, feminism has been dubbed cool once more and body positive bloggers are all over Instagram. Lynx – once one of the worst offenders – has launched a thoughtful campaign based on the concept of masculinity. In an exciting move, stricter guidelines are now being imposed on gender stereotypes in advertising throughout the UK. And my boyfriend steals my deodorant every day. Aren’t the Yorkie-style ‘Not for Girls’ marketing campaigns, and pricey ‘pink’ versions of existing products already behind us?
We’ve had BIC’s range of pens ‘for her’, with the promise that these pink pens will “fit comfortably in a woman’s hand”. Then there are the gendered Kinder Eggs, which force children firmly into the rigid box – pink or blue, dolls or cars – determined by the sex they are assigned at birth. And thanks to a Czech brewery, women can now drink beer! Yes, this beer, marketed as a “representation of a woman’s strength, and a girl’s tenderness” has liberated the fairer sex from a world in which rosé and cocktails were our only viable boozing options.
Co-opting feminism as a marketing ploy
‘Femvertising’ is not a new concept: cigarette brand Virginia Slims was flogging female empowerment as far back as 1968 with its slogan “You’ve come a long way baby”.
However, fourth-wave feminism has coincided with a digital era in which brands are striving to appear ‘woke’ to stand out in a saturated market. It’s estimated that consumers are now exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 adverts per day. Meanwhile, research from Nielsen has shown that 66 per cent of consumers will spend more money on a product if it’s from a socially responsible brand, while 81 per cent of millennials expect their favourite companies to publicly declare their corporate citizenship.
Ultimately, every brand needs to have that viral hit that gets the internet tweeting about them – and right now, jumping on the feminism bandwagon is a popular way to attempt that.
There’s Pantene’s #shinestrong campaign, which discussed research that found women are more likely than men to constantly apologise to those around them. Meanwhile, Covergirl – a US cosmetics brand – ran a star-studded #GirlsCan campaign, intended to break down barriers to girls achieving their full potential.
Then there was the #LikeAGirl campaign, from Always – a sanitary product manufacturer. This ran during the coveted Super Bowl ad break slot back in 2014. Its concept – turning the negative connotations of doing something “like a girl” inside out – was immensely clickable. And surely huge brands dedicating their marketing budgets to highlighting female empowerment is a good thing?
It’s not inherently negative that female empowerment is currently being highlighted, but when such an important issue is capitalised on for financial gain, it can feel exploitative and even see the brand become the subject of a backlash. Gender equality is a multifaceted and complex issue and, therefore, is not best condensed in a trite hashtag or feel good vid. And what will happen once fashionable feminism has ‘had its moment’? This is more than a fad and must be treated as such.
Cards Against Humanity for Her
That’s why it’s so refreshing to see a brand that just gets it. The company behind Cards Against Humanity – “a party game for horrible people” – recently pinkwashed its box for a special “for her” edition. But rather than being a condescending attempt to shift more units, the Cards Against Humanity for her edition takes on the so-called pink tax to serve up a delicious slice of satire.
But why is this different from the other feminism-led marketing campaigns?
Firstly, it’s hugely self-aware, satirising the cringey buzzwords that companies often use to target a female demographic. The endlessly pink page features images depicting female tropes – with a twist. One woman pairs the cards with “a glass of chilled white wine”, while another attempts to shave her legs with a card, and a third uses the boxes for a workout.
In the Q&A section, the question “Is this product really necessary?” is met with: “It’s adorable. It’s cute. Self-care. Take time for yourself. Chia bowl. Perfect on your coffee table or bookshelf. Watch What Happens Live with Andy Cohen. Brunch. Cheat day. Nasty women. Yaaaaaaaas queen! Good vibes only. Activated charcoal. Gender Reveal Party. Avocado face peels. You’re such a Miranda. Paleo.”
I found this to be a funny and refreshing take-off of the typical marketing lingo women are constantly subjected to, and it felt that a brand had finally “got it”.
Furthermore, instead of promoting a generic goal such as ‘empowerment’, the campaign focuses on ‘pink tax’: the fact that women’s products tend to be priced more highly than those exclusively marketed to males, even when it’s the exact same product. It does this by pricing the pink box of cards at $5 more than the classic black edition, despite admitting “the box is pink, but the cards are exactly the same as the original Cards Against Humanity”. Responding to the question of why the cards cost more, the page echoes one of the most famous marketing slogans ever: “Because we’re worth it”.
Vitally, Cards Against Humanity is also donating all the profits from the ‘for her’ version to Emily’s List – a US political action committee that aims to get female democratic candidates elected. So while this campaign may have raised awareness around the brand as a whole, the company is not directly profiting from the message of equality it is promoting, making it feel a lot less cynical.
And that’s the most important point.
If any brand is going to take on a serious issue like equality in their marketing, ROI has to come second to a genuine and well-communicated desire to take action to make the world a better place.
Will I be buying a pack of Cards Against Humanity now that I’m totally bought into the company’s message? No – largely because I’m just not that into parlour games. But that’s really not the point.