Feminist Advertising Does Not Exist - Improvement Week


By Molly Freeman

Early in December, a new commercial from Pantene made the rounds throughout the internet that challenged the ways we label men and women. Its content highlights a number of double standards that persist with gender roles in the workplace.

The ad features both men and women in similar situations with descriptive words shown in the background. For example, while a man is a “boss” a woman is “bossy”; a man is “persuasive” but a woman is “pushy”; a man is “neat” while a woman is “vain.”

The final message at the end tells women: “Don’t let labels hold you back. Be strong and shine.” It’s a terrific message that addresses a subject feminists have been fighting against for decades.

Pantene has received substantial praise for the commercial due to its viral success online. Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook, even applauded the ad on her page: “This is one of the most powerful videos I have ever seen illustrating how when women and men do the same things, they are seen in completely different ways. Really worth watching.”

While it might be a powerful video, the marketing intent behind it should still be acknowledged. Nina Bahadur wrote for The Huffington Post, “Pantene’s aim is to sell shampoo, and not necessarily to end workplace discrimination or change the way people view professional women.”

Although there were no shampoo bottles, shower scenes, or hair grooming moments, all the actresses featured in the video had perfect hair (not to mention perfect wardrobes and perfect jobs). It’s a commercial after all; even if it’s tackling real world topics, it still fundamentally exists to sell products.

“But we have to applaud a piece of advertising that calls attention to the gender double standard, and hopefully inspires some important conversations,” Bahadur wrote.

Do we?

Photo courtesy of Rachel Hinman.

Dove, another women’s beauty product company, added their own feminist advertising to the mix this past year by conducting social experiments relating to real beauty.

Last spring, Dove released their so-called social experiment “The Dove Real Beauty Sketches.” Within a month after being released, the video became the most watched advertisement, and the third most shared, of all time.

The Dove Real Beauty Sketches gathered a selection of women together and had them describe themselves to a sketch artist, then describe another woman in the group—all while the artist couldn’t see their faces. The experiment showcased that women are often their own harshest critics, which the video directly says with its final message: “You are more beautiful than you think.”

However, as Jazz Brice pointed out on her Tumblr, the majority of the featured participants are white women, many of whom have blonde hair and blue eyes. All of the participants are thin and relatively young (Brice estimates the oldest woman as in her 40s). Even as the advertisement explicitly encourages women to appreciate their beauty, it implicitly says that this only applies to women who are young, thin, and light-skinned.

Brice continued her critique, focusing on the last line of the commercial, spoken by one of the participants, who says, “I should be more grateful of my natural beauty. It impacts the choices and the friends we make, the jobs we go out for, the way we treat our children; it impacts everything. It couldn’t be more critical to your happiness.”

Brice responded to this line: “Did you hear that, ladies? How beautiful you are affects everything—from your personal relationships to your career. It could not be more critical to your happiness! …I know we’ve been told it thousands upon thousands of times before, but I hope you heard that, girls: your physical, superficial beauty is the most significant part of who you are, and the most important determining factor in your life.”

As Brice explained, Dove’s video attempts to appeal to the mass audience by telling all women they’re more beautiful than they think. However, the video and the participants involved treat physical beauty as if it is a woman’s most important attribute. This idea, that beauty is the best thing a woman has to offer, encourages women to buy products to improve upon that “natural beauty” Dove tells women they all have.

In the 1920s there was a huge shift in advertising that can be marked with Edward Bernays’ campaign for the American Tobacco Company to sell cigarettes to women. Since it was during the Women’s Rights movement, he marketed the cigarettes as “Torches of Freedom.” They weren’t just consumable tobacco products; they represented an idea, and Bernays changed the way people viewed cigarettes.

Over the past century, the beauty industry has played off the concept of selling an idea where they promote a standard of beauty that could only be attained through using their products. L’Oreal, Maybelline, and Nair are just a few companies that depict “perfect women” with supposedly perfect lives using their products.

In recent years, feminism has shed a light on the nonrealistic nature of these commercials, so Dove and Pantene have responded in kind. However, even though they’ve changed their tactics, these companies are still promoting an unrealistic standard of beauty with their new advertisements, ones that supposedly acknowledge all the denouncements feminists have asserted against beauty-product advertisements.

Dove and Pantene are, in the end, still selling merchandise. These companies are telling women what they want to hear: Yes, advertising depicts unrealistic standards of beauty. But they really just use that to sell their products as the companies that “get it.”

Sure, both the Pantene and Dove advertisements raise important questions about beauty, the way society views women, and the way women view themselves. But for all their worth these companies produce commercials largely to sell their products, and they do so by reaffirming a standard of beauty that excludes the majority of women.