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Empowerment Femvertising Advertising

Is femvertising the new challenge brands need to embrace?


By Naomi Taylor, Client Services Manager

November 12, 2015 | 8 min read

There have been whispers, or rather shouts, on the advertising block of the femvertising craze, in social speak #feminism. Brands have started to sell empowerment to women through their campaigns, promoting products as trending subjects in the social conversation. Always #LikeAGirl and Pantene’s #ShineStrong campaigns are a couple of the successful examples of equality advocates pushing confidence and self-worth. Before advertisers were selling sex, now they are selling the empowerment that comes with being equal and a disgust with sexism. Femvertising, whether you love or cringe at the phrase, is the soft marketing tactic engaging women and girls online with brands, in the guise of an equality project.

Femvertising seems to be steering the way towards further audience loyalty as well as encouraging brands to change deep rooted societal views. Is #empowerment just a fad? Or is it a challenge that all brands should consider embracing? In light of the femvertising debate, the Drum Network asks if it has become the most prominent challenge for brands when advertising to women?

Debra Hepburn, managing director, RBH

The world of marketing can change the world surely? For we are about communications and at their best communications can influence, educate and change behaviours. The furore around what is currently known as ‘Femvertising’ would have us believe that advertising campaigns (advertising in its broadest sense) have helped empower and liberate women. That we all now know that it’s okay, we are all really beautiful, we can all be strong, we’re all powerful and capable of achieving anything.

We also all know that ‘Femvertising’ is all about selling us something. And we kind of graciously allow that- if it’s done right- that is the biggest challenge facing advertisers. Because let’s face it we consumers (that means all of us, men, women, children, gender neutral) have a 360 degree moral compass in operation on every brand we partake in. As well as every other brand on our radar. So, when brands enter into a new moral high ground they damn well have to earn it.

As we move forwards marketing is under more stringent scrutiny. Yes, Dove did good back in the day. And we all wiped a tear at the Women describing Women iteration. And it’s so hard to criticise Dove because they opened the debate, paved the way for a less rigid classification of beauty. But this is dangerous territory that is incredibly tough to navigate. Dove got it so wrong when they launched their #ChooseBeautiful campaign. Suddenly we were back to labels. Suddenly we could only choose between the beautiful or average doors. There was little else to us. In one ill-considered execution the brand got it hugely wrong.

Back to our moral compass. We know stuff out here. We research stuff. We want to believe in the brands that share our lives. It doesn’t take too long to discover that Dove is owned by Unilever. Unilever are also owners of Lynx: remember (ladies) the legendary Lynx effect? Those ads with ‘those’ impossibly stereotyped women were running at exactly the same time as we were being empowered to recognise our own beauty. Still, that’s all stopped now…but you can still find Dove Skin Whitening Deodorant for sale here and all around the world? Not shown on the Unilever website at all by the way but very visible with a simple search. Seriously? Accept you are beautiful but only if you go a few shades more Caucasian?

Today the best campaigns are still those that have a brand truth at the heart of them, those who enter this arena with the very best intentions to be responsible with their marketing. Not those that assume that 51% of the world’s population are sitting around waiting for a brand to empower them. Not those that assume a marketing campaign can do so much more than over a century’s victorious efforts by suffragettes, women’s rights activists and gender equality proponents. Not those that talk the talk but would never consider donating profits to prevent female mutilation in Africa or reduce the number of sexual assaults on women in the Indian sub-continent. Because that’s what brands need to do to really change the world.

I dislike the label ‘Femvertising’ because it comes with its own sell-by date. We are moving towards a label-less society. Or a society of highly attuned individuals who may choose to try a different label at 9am to the one they wear at 3.30pm. Yes, currently 52% of women might admit to buying a product because they like the way a brand portrays women but is that actually empowering us or just giving us another reason to buy a new beauty product? I love Always and Sport England now but I remain unconvinced about Dove.

The world of brands has shrunk to a tiny Google search. Stay true, stay real, stay authentic. Or go home.

Adam Hinton, #ThisGirlCan

I think the biggest challenge when marketing to women is to be relevant to women’s lives without being patronizing or condescending. When working with any section of society the work must be able to speak to the audience in a way that is in tune with how they actually live their lives.

The difficulty for advertising and marketing is that 90% of the time the work is trying to sell a product to a consumer that may not want or need it. If they did they’d probably already be using it. It’s a problem for all marketing but as each market becomes increasingly diverse it hard to know your getting your communication out without creating offence, which can start a social media backlash which can be very damaging.

Marketers will always try various approaches to get attention. Sometimes this can be very positive and empowering with campaigns such as the This Girl Can campaign to encourage women of all ages, shapes and sized to take up more exercise. Dove almost did the same but ended up using women that conformed to the standard notions of ‘good looking’.

In most cases these marketers are following social trends that they feel are adding value to their product and will never follow anything too radical.

Philippa Roberts, co-author, Pretty Little Heads

Challenge is an interesting word. Almost invariably it’s used as a euphemism for 'incredibly-difficult-borderline-insurmountable difficulty!' But in the case of marketing to women, the challenges in that fraught sense are much less prominent than the opportunities. It genuinely feels as if there’s never been a more fascinating or more fruitful time for advertising to women. Women are more affluent and more educated than at any time in history; social networks offers previously undreamt of opportunities for female to female conversation; fourth wave feminism has meant talking about human differences (and if necessary calling out about bias) is happening and helpful; and, finally, after years of being quite kid-gloved and reticent, agency creative departments seem now to be inspired by the possibilities in the feminine. So it really feels like the start of a sort-of golden age where there are whole new territories for advertisers to explore, lots of new insight to build on, and whole new ways to engage opening up.

Within that there are, of course, challenges (in the real sense) and the main one we’ve observed is keeping the communication rooted and connected. Advertising has - for lots of good reasons - a tendency to hyperbole, but hyperbole is often the enemy of real empathy and so connection. Keeping feet firmly on the ground whilst aspiring to greater and better depictions of the feminine is the heart of the challenge for advertisers.

Join the conversation with Philippa, Debra, Adam and PZ Cussons, Hearst, Cosmopolitan Uk and She Says about femvertising at our event with Southpaw:

What Women Want: beyond feminism in advertising on Wednesday 18th November, 11.30am-2pm at The Ham Yard, Soho. Drum Network members can attend this event for free, contact for more details.

Empowerment Femvertising Advertising

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