We ladies have come a long way; women can now vote, get a college degree and even get on birth control…we are on top of the world! Well, not really, according to a U.S census women earn just 77 percent of what men earn and despite our “progressive” times women are still treated as second-class citizens in many aspects of life. Therefore, the feminist discourse is still very relevant, and for better or worse corporations are aware of this. From banks to car manufacturers to beauty companies, all types of businesses are jumping on the feminist bandwagon, empowering female consumers one ad at a time. From a distance this phenomenon might seem positive, after all, what’s the harm in boosting women’s self esteem? However, when a social movement’s ideals are adopted as marketing tools the message gets diluted and lost in the vast sea of capitalism. Through the analysis of several advertising campaigns from beauty and fashion companies, such as Cover Girl, I aim to demonstrate how big corporations take advantage of the feminist discourse as a way of generating profit while associating misleading messages to the cause.
The commodification of feminism in ads targeting women is by no means a recent phenomenon, “since the early 1970’s, advertisers have tried to connect the value and meaning of women’s emancipation to corporate products.” (Goldman et al 335) Advertisements that feed on feminist rhetoric usually portray “real” women doing things that are not considered feminine by the status quo. These women are generally slightly bigger than the typical model and have diverse racial backgrounds. Also, images are usually advertised as being unretouched and tend to highlight minor flaws such as stretchmarks or scars. Along with these real women comes the narrative that tells women that they are all beautiful and that they can do anything they want. Usually these messages have a feel-good tone and do not go into an in-depth analysis of the problem for as Johnson and Taylor have noted in their assessment of Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, “a more radical critique might negatively affect sales by alienating women who are emotionally invested in beauty ideology and/or promote a kind of self-acceptance not contingent on beautification and commodification.” (962)
The “Girls Can” campaign by Cover Girl is a great example of how beauty companies target their niches through the idea of self-empowerment. The advertisement, which aired during this year’s Winter Olympics, features an impressive roster of female celebrities including Ellen DeGeneres, Katy Perry, Pink and ice hockey player Natalie Wiebe. The ad begins with the women listing a series of things that according to society girls can’t do then they turn the message around stating that girls can in fact do all these things and more. The ad closes with Ellen saying “make the world a little more easy, breezy and beautiful”
Another ad that endorses a similar message comes from a Pantene campaign that ran in the Philippines. The ad visually portrays double standards that women face on a daily basis. For instance, while a man is a seen as a boss, a woman doing the exact same thing is considered to be bossy and when a man works late, he is dedicated while his female counterpart is seen as selfish. The ad wraps up with the phrase “Don’t let labels hold you back, be strong and shine” followed by Pantene’s logo and a hashtag that says WHIPIT.
While, one could possibly argue that in fact both of these advertisements are promoting a positive message it is important to remember the purpose of these ads, which, in the long run is to sell a product, rather than to help alleviate gender inequalities. Additionally, aside from masquerading their true intentions, these types of marketing campaigns also help promote problematic ideologies. Following Goldman and Papson’s pointers of how advertisements carry ideologies; these advertisements do so by first of all constructing a world in which the beauty industry instead of nurturing from women’s insecurity and society’s rigid beauty standards is instead an ally to women. Also, these ads disguise bigger injustices women face due to gender inequality, such as wage gaps and other problems that can’t be solved with mascara or shampoo. Additionally, these ads promote a normative vision of world, in which consumption somehow leads to equality, thus promoting the logic of capital.
If I were to create a spoof mocking these types of advertisement I would probably have a “real” woman, someone whose looks are very far from conventional beauty standards, attend a job interview for a position in a field such as science or technology. The interviewer would be a man, who would look at the woman’s impressive resume but still decides to hire the other interviewee who happens to be a man. The woman would come out of the office and say something like “I don’t get it! I am wearing mascara; I thought I could do anything!”
Beauty companies that target their niche markets through commodity feminism are problematic for they deceive their consumers into believing that through the consumption of their products they will attain gender equality. Furthermore, they help degenerate the discourse of a valuable social movement that has faced multiple setbacks throughout history.