Selling Empowerment!

Dristy Rahman critically reflects on the marketing strategies that half-heartedly appropriates from feminism.


Just in case you were thinking that advertisements are changing the entire world by making people more aware of equal rights, then you are a fool. All the social media campaigns and promotional adverts on television don’t really help. Using feminism to sell products is leading to aggressive marketing of those products and companies out there are using it for their own benefit.

What really is feminism? It’s basically advocating equal rights for women. People are seen to voice their opinions by buying ‘feminism goods’, these are products designed to advocate women’s rights. By carrying the goods, which imply women’s empowerment, consumers feel they are part of the feminist movement. The products are said to be a social movement while others claim it’s nothing more than a marketing strategy (which it is, to be honest).

Apparently, buying these products is an easy way to express their identity as a feminist. The action of producing and distributing them could be also considered as agreeing to the idea. It is believed that sellers of such products take advantage of the gender issue to boost sales. Some people condemn the companies for using the feminist movement as a marketing strategy. These can be T-shirts saying ‘Girls do not need a prince’, or even a phone cover saying ‘this princess saves herself’. This idea in Korea went viral, earning $113,000, and spawning diverse variations, including books, coffee mugs, badges and key chains. Now, the biggest question would be, ‘is this a movement or a marketing strategy?’

I imagine you just glanced at the paper to see if you’d suddenly been teleported back to 1840. Questioning whether you are aligned with the modern day feminism or not, it’s quickly weaving itself into our world in some interesting ways. I think empowerment is a word that is overused and probably often misused, but in this case, it’s about celebrating and selling the idea that women can do and be anything they choose. Toy manufacturers are promoting girl engineers and coders with their STEM-based toys, and Disney movies such as Frozen celebrate women helping each other, rather than being rescued by a prince. Both examples were out of the box mega-hits, meaning their themes resonated with consumers in a significant way.

Consumers are often seen to reward those companies who go out of their way to recognise and celebrate equality in all its shapes and forms. Lately, feminism seems to have made such a dent that companies now see being anti-sexism as a way to sell products! It’s almost as if women are a majority of the population and it would be a smart business move to market products with their interests in mind. There has been a slew of marketing campaigns that have tried to do this. The Dove ‘Real Beauty’ campaign included the Dove Real Beauty Sketches advertisement and asked women to describe themselves to a sketch artist to get an image of how they see themselves. The sketch artist asked another random woman who had met the subject to describe her and did a sketch based on that. The women were shocked that the sketches based on other people’s descriptions were more flattering and attractive.

When I first saw the advertisement, I was touched by the fact that these women were finally able to see themselves in a positive light through the eyes of others. Women were crying because they learned that their nose wasn’t as crooked as they thought, or that they weren’t as large as they thought, for Goodness’ sake. While everyone wants to feel attractive, there is a disproportionate amount of pressure put on women to be attractive by the media and by society.

Pantene’s #ShineStrong campaign put out another advertisement that focused on the double standard inherent in labels placed on confident women who work hard (bossy, selfish, show-off) as opposed to men who do the same (boss, dedicated, confident). It encouraged women to #ShineStrong (and apparently one way to do that is by washing your hair with Pantene, rather than getting a masters degree), and to not let labels hold them back, while not acknowledging that beauty companies are a big reason which leads to the labels it is warning against.

Companies market products to make money off of women’s insecurities. Most shampoos are marketed to women because a woman’s hair is very much associated with how attractive and seductive they can be with the product’s use. Shampoo is marketed to men in a utilitarian way, using powerful language to make something as unisex as shampoo and soap sound more masculine. As if the only way we can get men to wash themselves is by convincing them that doing so is part of a top-secret black ops mission.

Long story short, it’s hard to take any message embedded in these advertisements in the name of feminism seriously. You can’t tell women to #ShineStrong one minute while contributing to their insecurities about their looks the next. Most of these are often vague and muddled. It demonstrates that double standards exist, but doesn’t point to how or why or what we can do about it, while at the same time promoting a product whose sole purpose is to make women look better. The confidence women need in order to free themselves from labels and double standards can apparently be found in materialistic objects.

I obviously cannot be the first to write about this who believes using feminism to sell products is patronising and wrong. Mostly (but not entirely) due to social conditioning, men and women tend to think about things differently, so I understand the desire to market to a specific demographic through advertising. However, you don’t need to have men objectifying women in a commercial to sell your potato chips to men. You don’t have to have a husband look like an idiot and an incompetent father to sell your cleaning products to women.

The reason why someone should buy something is because it’s a good product and will make your life easier, rather than targeting one gender (unless it’s a gender-centric product). Ultimately, I’m not put off by companies trying to appeal to our emotions or values to sell products. I’m put off by companies advertising a product to one group by putting another group down, or advertising to a marginalised group by enticing them to buy something that’s bad for them under the guise of empowerment.


Dristy Rahman is a self-proclaimed magical bunny, whose glittery wand of positivity casts pink spotlights on key issues, and sprinkles progressive outlook on life.



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