Femvertising: Is it really progressing women’s rights?

Screen grabs from the Dove website and Always' #likeagirl campaign video with over 63 million views.

By Mamta Manhas

In only a minute a video by personal care company, Dove, a model transforms. First, her makeup and hair are expertly done, next her face is digitally altered, and finally her photo appears on a billboard. It ends with the statement: “No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted.”

The video is part of Dove’s larger campaign advocating for self-confidence among girls. Globally reaching 17 million girls in 12 years, the company has aimed to empower girls to reach their full potential and educate them on the beauty standards society imposes. A small proceed of all their products goes to funding this initiative.

Dove isn’t alone with these feminist-orientated campaigns. Many multimillion companies are capitalizing on the social movement by creating initiatives to empower girls and women.

Also known as “femvertising”, these campaigns have come under fire due to their commodification of feminism and effectiveness of their campaigns.

“There is a lot of criticism around how they talk about real beauty and self confidence but at the end of the day they still want you to buy their products,” explains Nasreen Rajani, a Carleton University doctorate student. “Their products are for women to look better and live up to certain beauty standards.”

Kellogg’s is another company that uses femvertizing. They recently re-branded by launching “Own It,” a campaign geared towards self-empowerment and loving your body. Feminine hygiene company Always created the #likeagirl campaign which encourages girls to play sports and get active to build confidence. CoverGirl, Pantene, Underarmour all have similar projects.

Rajani said she can see an upside to these types of initiatives.

“These campaigns are definitely a sign of progress because we haven’t see them before. Especially with people still trying to understand feminism and what it means it to be a feminist,” added the former women and gender studies student, “seeing those commercials is really helpful… Money is still going to programs that help young girls, those are all great things.”

One of the largest focuses of the projects by Dove and Kellogg’s is body image. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada poor body image and low self-esteem can significantly affect the mental and physical health of young people.  In Grade six, 26 per cent of girls believe they are too fat, with that number jumping to 39 per cent by Grade 10. In Grade six, 11 per cent of girls tried to do something to lose weight, and by Grade 10, 21 per cent have.

Andi Zeisler, CEO of feminist magazine Bitch and author of We Were Feminists Once states in her book: “The fight for gender equality has [transformed] from a collective goal to a consumer brand.”

“We are letting a glossy, feel-good feminism pull focus away from deeply entrenched forms of inequality,” she added.

Nazarene Njeru, administrative assistant of the Womyn’s Centre at Carleton University said the campaigns lack focus on the bigger issues surrounding low self-esteem in women and girls.

“They don’t go into the aspects of why women feel [ashamed of their bodies] in terms of structural and societal norms,” she said. “We live in a world that is very fast paced. The campaigns are not looking into policies, they are only looking into consumer wants.”

Marketing expert and University of Ottawa professor, Michael Mulvey, offers a slightly different point of view.

“The marketing world isn’t very different than the normal world,” he said. Mulvey explained that as norms of society change and evolve, marketers have to follow in order to stay in business and therefore don’t often address these issues in-depth.

He goes on to explain the messages of marketers are always tailored to the audience. There is even a specific name for this study of marketing called psychographic. It focuses on opinions, values, ideologies, and concerns that unite people.

However, he said this appeal to ideals does come with responsibility.

“You have to be authentic if you are going to use this kind of advertising,” Mulvey said. “With the power of social media and campaigns like Adbusters, consumers have become a part of a healthy dialogue versus the monologue it used to be. It isn’t 1953 anymore and consumers are even more empowered”

For example, Unilever, the company that owns Dove has been criticized for selling Fair and Lovely, a skin bleaching cream in South Asia. This resulted in the hashtag “unfair and lovely” showcasing pictures of women on Twitter and Instagram with different complexions loving who they are.

“It’s a bit contradictory since Unilever is having campaigns about self love here but in other places they are fostering more division among women,” Njeru commented.

P&G, Unilever and Kellogg’s were unable to respond to these criticisms, as specific marketing information is confidential.

The unfair and lovely hashtag demonstrates the power of social media but Dove, Always and Kellogg’s can take of advantage of this power as well. Their videos and commercials have gained millions of views on social media.

Always gathered nearly 63 million views on Youtube, with their #runlikeagirl video. The video brought to the forefront stereotypes of girls playing sports and how harmful they can be.

However, the social media platforms themselves can have biases explained Rena Bivens, a communications professor at Carleton University.

“I’m suspicious of social media,” she said with a laugh. “The ones that are most popular are motivated by profit. They are designed to make money rather than help other organizations spread awareness about their issue.”

“Social media policies also affect what kind of feminisms go through social media,” Ranjani explained.

She uses a photo by Canadian author Rupi Kaur as an example. Twice, Instagram took down Kaur’s photo showing a menstrual bloodstain on her pants as it violated their policies.

“Why is it we can’t see menstrual blood even though half our population will experience it, but its treated as something gross? There’s definitely a face of feminism they like to portray.”

Zeisler explains in her book that feminism continues to be an important movement for men and women. Due to its complexity and unbalancing a power structure that has been put in place for years, change will take some time.

Algonquin student Ayan Abdalla doesn’t think feminism will be solved with these campaigns.

“Me buying a bar of soap isn’t going to save the world,” said the multi-media design student. “These commercials don’t really do anything but make me feel good for a few minutes.”

Abdalla has experienced these campaigns first hand by participating in self-confidence workshops as a teen.

“I’m a pretty confident person but I grew that the hard way. Those workshops did help me a little,” she recalled. “At the same time, I think no one can truly teach someone to love themselves. You can encourage them but it doesn’t matter if they don’t believe it. You can’t give someone their self-worth, they have to realize it themselves.”

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