Femvertising: are brands exploiting feminism to make money?

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A Muslim girl skateboards fearlessly in a hijab on a Middle Eastern street, a young Turkish woman boldly enters the boxing ring, another stamps with a sports shoe on a delicate, pink doll’s house.

The images of strong, female athletes breaking down societal barriers in patriarchal societies was a key feature of Nike’s “Believe in more” advertising campaign in 2017.

Companies have been co-opting political causes as marketing tools for years, and now, as the global #metoo movement shows little sign of slowing its tempo, women’s empowerment sells more than ever before.

Kathryn Addo, account director at Wieden + Kennedy Amsterdam, who created Nike’s local adverts for Russia, Turkey and the Middle East, told AdWeek that the company wanted to celebrate the success of women who broke through gender discrimination in the sports world.

In Turkey, women were still held back by traditional gender roles, in Russia, domestic violence had just been decriminalised, and in the Middle East Nike was planning to launch Nike Pro Hijab, to inspire girls to start their sports journey, she explained.

But as global companies jump on the so-called “femvertising” bandwagon, are they a force for good, pushing societies towards greater gender equality, or do they just cynically exploit a serious issue for money?

The primary objective is to make money

Philippa Roberts, founder of marketing-to-women consultancy, Pretty Little Heads, believes that promoting a “female-supporting purpose at the heart of a brand” is “universally positive.”

“Of course for most brands, their primary objective is not to do good in the world, but to make money,” she conceded, but argued that connecting with their audience through the sharing of an agenda was still “incredibly impactful.”

“From a general good of the world point of view it’s also proves really helpful and constructive,” Roberts argued.

“If you think of what Dove or Always have done, they have made a really proper change to the way that things are considered and seen,” she said, referring to advertising campaigns that have promoted a positive body image and broken down taboos about menstruation.

Getting it wrong has consequences

Purpose-driven advertising also proved to have an in-built advantage for company brands, she pointed out.

Last year multinational Unilever, which owns the Dove brand, reported that its Sustainable Living brands grew over 50% faster than the rest of the business and delivered more than 60% of the company’s growth in 2016.

“Having a supportive female-orientated purpose at the heart of a brand is brilliant on all sorts of levels,” said Roberts.

“It’s really good for salience, i.e. being top of mind and on people’s agendas…and it’s really good for affinities and emotional connections between brands and their audiences.”

It was also “brilliant for communications” as it created social media content that was relevant enough to share and “positions that are interesting enough to fuel word of mouth,” she added.

“All would be at the heart of what the successful female brand is about.”

Even the most progressive companies sometimes fail to hit the right tone, however. Dove was criticised last year in a Guardian article for becoming “patronising” and “tarnishing its reputation” as a beauty brand on a woman’s side for its “Real Beauty” bottles.

The bottles, made in different shapes to reflect the diversity of women’s bodies, did not make it to production but provoked a negative reaction on social media.

“How did a brand that has always got it so right, suddenly get it so wrong?” asked the Guardian.

The older female demographic is still neglected

Meanwhile, companies also continued to let the older female demographic down, argued Roberts.

“You know there’s a saying that women over fifty become invisible within the world and actually, if you look at marketing, that is never more true. Women in the second half of their lives are more or less ignored,” she said.  

“There is very little that is done in terms of supporting and respecting their interests and achievements and contribution so that is a whole, totally insane, missing link, given that commercially that is really where the value is in the market, with the older audience,” said Roberts.

“Some of the fashion brands have done it, in a slightly token way, but I think that that’s probably where the next wave of opportunity lies.”

Advertising could also do more to better portray the participation of hard-working women in the global supply chain of major companies, said Sioned Jones, Executive Director at women’s rights NGO, The Circle.

There could be more recognition of “the role of women in the production of food or drink or clothes.” It should be the responsibility of companies to show the role women play in the production of their goods, with the aim to make a positive impact on society, she argued.

“To be brutally honest, the changing of the world’s poverty situation will happen most by the private sector, so they have more opportunity to shift the poverty pendulum than anyone, any NGO, or individual,” she said.  

The positive impacts to the cause

“I think in terms of marketing, if they show equality, that is good for women wherever, because it strengthens the arguments around why the world needs to be more equal,” added Jones.

Marketing campaigns could bring about positive change as long as they refrained from demeaning women by portraying them in stereotypical roles, for example showing them always to be the ones to change a baby’s nappy in an advert, she argued.

“If advertising is showing more equality and especially less stereotyping I think that does help the movement of women generally shift,” Jones said.

“Feminism is about equality – about equal rights and opportunities…It’s not about showing how strong women are but actually about how they are capable and able if you give them the same opportunity and rights.”

Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.

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