Credit: Christopher Lane for Ad Age

Female Empowerment in Ads: Soft Feminism or Soft Soap?

Go-Girl Marketing Is the Hot New Trend. But Are These Ads Culture-Changing or Simply 'Pinkwashing'?

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Under Armour's first attempt at a women's business in 2003 failed spectacularly. Tampax celebrated menstruation in 2007 with an outrageous "period dance" and no one noticed. Go Go Sports Girls, dolls billed as a "fun and educational way to promote self-appreciation," weren't fashion-forward enough in 2011 to warrant a slot in the toy aisle alongside their sexier competitors.

What a difference a few years makes.

Now, Under Armour's women's business is booming, thanks to the addition of female leaders. HelloFlo picked up where Tampax left off, creating videos like "Camp Gyno" and "First Moon Party" that have gone viral, winning fans for addressing once-taboo topics with irreverence and unabashed candor. Go Go Sports Girls can be found in Walmart.

Ads from industry stalwarts -- Always, Verizon and Pantene, to name a few -- are celebrating girls and women as smart and capable, racking up millions of online views and sparking important conversations in the process. Marketers are challenging cultural norms and notions about how we talk about -- and to -- women.

Click images to view a timeline of women in advertising.
Click images to view a timeline of women in advertising.

So what's changed since Dove seeded the movement with its "Campaign for Real Beauty" 10 years ago? A lot. Anecdotally, there are more women in leadership positions at brands (though agencies still aren't doing their part, with women representing a dismally low percentage of creative leadership). Social media has given consumers the power to speak out loudly against ads they find sexist. And, culturally -- well, let's just call it the "Lean In" phenomenon.

Beyond frills and fluff
Marketers, now subject to the social-media jury, are increasingly pressured to stand for something beyond the sell. That's become even more apparent with each passing year at industry awards shows, where "doing good" has become less of a trend and more of a requirement. Advertisers have woken up to the fact that women -- and plenty of men, too -- will take to Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook to decry sexist, tasteless and phony advertising. But if done well, marketing with purpose can rally consumers around your brand.

"On the internet, women have been able to build power … to move and change public debate," said Jennifer Pozner, founder and executive director of Women in Media and News. "Some of them have wised up and said … 'If we create ad platforms that treat women and girls as if they're fully human, we can turn them into brand loyalists."

Advertising Benchmark Index surveyed consumers after they had viewed Always' "Like a Girl," which shows how the phrase can marginalize young women; Pantene's "Not Sorry," which refutes women's need to continually apologize; and Verizon's "Inspire her Mind," which outlines how young girls are subtly steered away from science and engineering. The researcher found that not only do a majority of consumers feel the ads promote a positive message for women, they have a strong, positive impact on the brands' reputation. "Given the subject matter, the call-to-action scores were higher than might be expected," said ABX President Gary Getto.

In other words, female empowerment sells.

Just ask Dove. The brand has been racking up headlines, ad awards and cash-register receipts ever since launching "Campaign for Real Beauty" in 2004. Dove sales have jumped to $4 billion from $2.5 billion in the campaign's inaugural year. (Then again, while Unilever markets "Real Beauty" in the West, it also markets "White Beauty" in Asia.)

It doesn't hurt that boldface marketing names are getting behind the issue. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's book "Lean In," which explores women's progress in leadership roles, just recorded its 71st week on the New York Times Best Sellers list. Her organization is tackling institutional sexism by partnering with stock-photo giant Getty on an image collection that abolishes female stereotypes.

The creatives behind Dove's lauded campaign, Janet Kestin and Nancy Vonk, are also about to publish a book, "Darling You Can't Do Both: And Other Noise to Ignore on Your Way Up."

In education and tech, there's a huge push to support girls' participation in science, technology, engineering and mathematics programs. Toy manufacturers are building out new categories by addressing girls' interest in toys that go beyond frills and fluff, as seen in the launch of brands like GoldieBlox -- "toys for future innovators" -- and Go Go Sports Girls.

This environment has created a perfect storm for Procter & Gamble's Always feminine hygiene brand, whose brand purpose for 30 years has been to empower women and safeguard girls' confidence. "But who knew, because it's not something that was ever advertised," said Becky Swanson, exec VP-executive creative director at Leo Burnett, Chicago, which created the Always "Like a Girl" campaign. "There was a feeling that it's time to talk about it and not just toot our own horn, but to take a more active, public role in making a positive change in the world. As our client would say, one girl at a time."

The seed of the effort was Always' research uncovering a steep drop-off in confidence as girls went through puberty. That, paired with the insight that nine out of 10 women agree words can be harmful, was the basis for the video. Pantene, Verizon and Under Armour also said their recent campaigns were grounded in extensive consumer research.

"It astonishes me it's taken so long for others to follow in Dove's footsteps. ... There's been so little in that vein in the last decade," said Jean Kilbourne, creator of the documentary "Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Image of Women." "Traditional advertising has remained so sexist. In many ways it's worse than when I started looking at it years ago. ... Given that, ads like these, even though they're not perfect, are a step in the right direction."

Don't call me feminist
Feminism is as prevalent -- or even more prevalent -- as a marketing theme as it was in the heyday of women's rights pioneers like Gloria Steinem, but it has taken a 180-degree twist in tonality. The stridency of "You've come a long way, baby" has given way to an inclusive message of female empowerment. Today's Enjoli woman wouldn't just bring home the bacon and fry it up in the pan; she'd also conduct a cooking class for young girls aspiring to be chefs.

GoldiBlox won Intuit's contest for a 2014 Super Bowl spot.
GoldiBlox won Intuit's contest for a 2014 Super Bowl spot.

"I don't think anybody wants to talk about feminism anymore," said Ms. Swanson. "It's one of the most misunderstood and controversial words out there. [But] if you talk about it as 'girl power,' that's purely positive. At its heart it's not that different from feminism, but it is a fresh new way to think about it."

David Rogers, a faculty member at Columbia Business School, calls it "soft" feminism. "It's not really about pursuing feminism through government action or legislation," he said. "There's this idea of 'Let's pursue feminist goals,'" beginning internally rather than externally, he said. In essence, the movement urges "'Look at yourself; look at your heart -- change begins with you.'"

The shift has been partly driven by millennials, who are focused on individual attitudes and sentiments rather than being motivated by institutional challenges as their parents were. The demographic's "attention span is brief, and they do like to see themselves as unique individuals who can do whatever they want," said Carolyn Zerbe Enns, a professor of psychology at Cornell College. "So, any message that would focus on individual empowerment would sell more effectively."

Marketers are being careful not to label themselves or their marketing messages as feminist, however -- and for good reason. Twenty-six percent of consumers consider calling someone a feminist to be an insult, while just 14% consider it to be a compliment, according to a July YouGov Poll. Only one in four consumers considers themselves feminist, yet when the word is defined for them as someone who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes, the figure jumps to 60%, according to the YouGov poll.

Under Armour's 'I will what I want campaign' features ballerina Misty Copeland.
Under Armour's 'I will what I want campaign' features ballerina Misty Copeland.

Asked whether there is a feminist message behind Under Armour's new campaign, "I will what I want," which features the stories of athletes like Lindsey Vonn, Kelley O'Hara and Misty Copeland overcoming odds and critics to achieve their goals, Leanne Fremar, exec creative director overseeing women's brand marketing, product and design, and Heidi Sandreuter, VP-women's marketing, demur.

The dialogue between "the generations that really paved the way for feminism and the women that are living in the bliss and freedom that feminism provided" is "very interesting, but maybe not a brand conversation," said Ms. Fremar at an event debuting a poignant spot in which Ms. Copeland, now an accomplished ballerina, dances while a 13-year-old girl reads off the litany of criticisms she endured about her body type and her age.

"We think women are already empowered," added Ms. Sandreuter. "They don't need a pat on the back .... We want to celebrate women living their lives on their own terms."

Execution is critical
Whether or not messages are labeled feminist, creative execs question whether marketers' enthusiastic embrace of female empowerment will backfire against their ultimate goal of distinguishing and selling product.

"Just saying you're pro-woman shouldn't be enough to make me buy your product over another one," said Colleen DeCourcy, global co-exec creative director at Wieden & Kennedy, the agency behind notable "girl power" ads such as Nike's "Let Me Play," "Voices" and "Pretty," which highlight girls' ability to excel in sports.

"It's too early to say that the women's battle has been won, but trying to convince me to buy something by just acknowledging I'm a woman almost plays into the older problem," Ms. DeCourcy said. "I want messages that play to my interests, not just my gender. I start to wonder that once every single brand a woman can buy starts to position itself around 'You're a woman and we get you,' how are you going to create distinction?"

Ms. DeCourcy suggested a better angle may be for marketers to talk to women in a more nuanced way, not as if they're victims bearing the burden of larger societal woes. She used as illustration her agency's recent "Momsong" campaign for, of all things, P&G's Old Spice. The comedic effort portrayed mothers as slightly obsessed, ballad-singing stalkers confronting the fact that their sons are turning into young men. "Women loved it," Ms. DeCourcy said. "It showed a wacky, weird love -- the sons never roll their eyes saying, 'Mom, leave me alone.' It feels like it's written by sons who love their mothers and acknowledge the crazy things they sometimes will do."

The more the message fits into the brand's overall values, the better chance it has of sticking with consumers and not getting lost in the clutter, said Kevin Keller, a marketing professor at Dartmouth's Tuck School of Business. "Execution is critical," he said. "If it's done properly, it is a way to create a richer brand that has more meaning, relevance and is reaching people in a more emotional way."

But as more and more brands jump on the bandwagon -- and industry watchers expect they will -- it will be necessary to go beyond marketing messages, lest brands be accused of "pinkwashing" -- think greenwashing, which plagued brands in the early days of the movement toward more environmentally-friendly business practices.

"It's starting to feel a little formulaic," said Kat Gordon, founder of the 3% Conference . "As someone who truly cares about female leadership, I'd rather you put someone on your board than pay lip service to this issue." Here it's worth noting that many of the brands currently running ads featuring themes of female empowerment have also partnered with charitable organizations -- Pantene has teamed up with the American Association of University Women, and Verizon is working with Makers, for example.

The ultimate sign women have arrived, however, will be when advertising like this becomes so commonplace it ceases to be notable.

"The key is, can advertising get to a point where women are in leadership [roles], where women's perspectives inform the ads, and the products aren't actively dangerous to the health, safety or equity of women?" said Ms. Pozner. "Until Donna Draper is making as many decisions over the content of advertising as Don Draper, and the products being sold don't sell women out, then this trend is nothing more than another selling tool -- and that tool won't work very well in the long run."

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