Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Is This What We Truly Desire?

Published in Sep-Oct 2020

Is femvertising working? Sumaira Mirza ponders the question.

"Tell me, what is it that you truly desire?” This phrase clicked while watching Lucifer on Netflix (my newfound addiction). The question left me wondering (as a storyteller and an adwoman), whether this is what we are always attempting to dig out from our consumers. I found the question fascinating because it brought so much to the fore when searching for an answer! It made me ponder the thought that maybe this question gave rise to ‘femvertising’.

Gone are the times when women were subservient to men and were projected to the media as such. They were shown confined within four walls, immersed in household chores or looking after their family and children – and if anyone had to make a sacrifice, it would be them. Advertising in the seventies and eighties depicted women in docile roles. It is an accepted fact that ads are a reflection of society; of the prevailing social system at the time of execution. The portrayal of women was mainly as objectified sex symbols and the reason why women often featured in advertising that was not aimed at them. In those days, a women’s destiny was limited to her role as a mother and wife and men were considered the decision makers of the family; women were portrayed as submissive and men as the bread earners, hence aggressive and adventurous.

In the last couple of decades, there has been a significant shift in the roles assigned to women and their place in society. Once totally dependent on men, they have become the liberated women of the 21st century; either earning an independent salary or with views of their own. Their role has metamorphosed from domestic managers to prime purchasers who the make decisions on behalf of the family, turning them into the prime target audience for many brands.

Power has been defined as the ability to change the behaviour of others. Studies have classified power into two categories: power-over and power-to. Women do not consider power as just dominance (power-over), but as the capability to improve one’s self (power-to).

These days, rather than promoting unrealistic beauty expectations, ads have started to celebrate real womanhood. There has been a paradigm shift whereby the focus is on empowering women. As global brands promote female empowerment in their marketing, we must ask whether the growth of feminism is simply commercially driven or represents a wider symbol of change. It is important not to confuse the power of consumption with the power of equality.

Reflecting a progressive and inclusive worldview can contribute to positive change as well as deliver bottom-line results. According to data collected by Kantar, non-stereotypical advertising creates 37% more branded impact, 28% more purchase intent and increases enjoyment of ads by 35%.

The ‘ordinariness’ and ‘everydayness’ of feminism can result in it being taken for granted, although the ‘common sense’ narrative suggests that feminist ideas are widely accepted. However, what is worrying is that embedded within this notion of common sense is a passive ambivalence towards gender equality. This ‘normalisation’ of feminism is evidenced within femvertising as the media moves towards celebrating feminism rather than disavowing it.

Unilever’s Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign flipped the traditional script by reconstructing beauty standards to include all skin tones, body types, heights, weights, wrinkles, rolls and flaws. As one of the first advertising campaigns to go viral on social media, this campaign is still releasing relevant femvertising content today. P&G’s #LikeAGirl campaign saw the rise of socially focused commercials. For example, Always promises to bring confidence to ‘everyday girls’. The brand moved away from focusing solely on their product to talking about the fact that a woman’s period can result in a lack of confidence in other aspects of life. It invites audiences to view the brand as more than just a female hygiene one; rather as a brand that helps consumers move past taboos.

However, to introduce a sceptical element to the debate, is it in the interests of advertisers to appear sincere, so that their ads are viewed for longer? This may explain the rise in ads that seem to be more issue and less product focused.

Pantene launched two campaigns under the slogan of ‘Shine Strong’ and ‘Labels Against Women’. Both these femvertising attempts called into question the harmful rhetoric that affects how women are perceived by others and how they perceive themselves (through demeaning labels or over apologising). Although these campaigns were widely recognised as manifestations of the femvertising phenomenon and were extremely popular and yielded profitable results, they received criticism from those who saw the brand’s empowering messaging as contrived and demeaning.

Some people see femvertising as the perfect blend of advertising that can sell products while simultaneously empower women. While this may hold some truth to it, we must not forget that this hashtag-heavy method of advertising exists to create a positive brand image and build a connection with the target audience for sales growth.

Nike’s ‘Da Da Ding’ ad garnered over 2.8 million views on YouTube within a week of release. The ad showcased strong sportswomen from India who were not as well-known as their male counterparts (a necessary depiction). However, a spin-off video exposed the ad for its exclusivity. The spin-off portrayed ordinary women who work just as hard, but are never the focus of such ads. This spin-off, called ‘Da Da Ding: The Other Women’, was an instant hit as it represented a wider section of women in India and juxtaposed shots of women wearing Nike shoes in the original ad with those of women who could not afford them. “Been doing it. Barefoot.” the video proclaimed in the end.

Recently a wave of Pakistani ads has been trying to challenge gender roles, tackling everything from gender roles around marriage to childcare and work dynamics. #ChangeTheLullaby, #DifferentIsGood, #NayiSochKayNayeZaiqey #YehDaagHumeyKyaRokeingey are some examples. Shan Foods received much praise for a biryani masala ad that featured a young suitor wooing the patriarchs of a large Punjabi family by cooking perfect biryani. In line with their global branding, the latest Always Pakistan campaigns revolve around empowering women to go about their lives despite menstruation; the Independence Day ‘Always Azad’ tagline effectively encapsulated this messaging.

Feminism is fashionable. From celebrity endorsements to successful femvertising campaigns, the surge of ‘feminist’ attitudes within popular culture has not gone unnoticed by media and communications scholars. The question is, what do we make of it? How do individuals react to this kind of advertising and how can this shape and impact the wider feminist rhetoric?

There are many contrary views to this. Some women love the empowerment message but do not necessarily support the brand and nor does their overall attitude towards the company change as a result of their exposure to these messages. Some women become more inspired to succeed in their future careers after watching portrayals of women’s achievements in an ad. Still others think that femvertising simply sells an inadequate form of feminism and others believe it could be a step in the right direction.

It will take a while before initiatives to empower women are not met with scepticism. Nevertheless, change is afoot. It is just a matter of time before we understand more about what lies inside the hearts and minds of our consumers and what they desire.

Sumaira Mirza is a freelance writer.