Advertising International Women's Day

Marketing’s ‘faux-feminism’ problem on International Women’s Day


By Samuel Scott, The Promotion Fix columnist

March 4, 2019 | 18 min read

There is much hypocrisy in the marketing world. Some examples are the ad campaigns that some companies run for occasions such as this week’s upcoming International Women’s Day.

fearless girl

State Street's Fearless Girl has come to be a symbol for International Women's Day

Recently, I visited my old city of Boston, where I spent nine years studying and then working in journalism. (After later progressing in my MBA studies, I moved to Tel Aviv and started a new marketing career. The rest is history.)

While I was there, I met up with Katie Martell, a former startup chief marketing officer and entrepreneur who is now a consultant and executive director of the Boston Content non-profit community for content marketers.

One of her passions is writing and speaking about the portrayal of women in advertising and their treatment within the industry. For this column before International Women’s Day (IWD) this Friday, I interviewed her at the time to discuss what she calls ‘femvertising’.

“We as marketers are operating in a time where more consumers expect brands to take a stand on cultural issues,” Martell said. “And this topic is hot. What brand wouldn't want to position themselves as champions of diversity and women? We all want to be on the right side of history.”

But she added that many companies are hypocritical because their advertising messages contradict their own business practices that allegedly range from unequal pay to uneven representation to sexual harassment.

“This is ‘feminist when convenient’,” Martell said. “Profiting from these ideals while embodying or perpetuating the opposite is not clever. It's exploitation. I call this ‘faux-feminism’. It’s the exploitation of feminism by advertising. What this does is to redefine feminism in a dangerous way – diminishing it down to a tagline. It masks the underlying core problem.”

I used Martell’s ideas and did my own research to compile a list of companies that may have appeared – to varying degrees – to be offenders. I also contacted them for comment. In alphabetical order, here is what I found.


During the 2017 Super Bowl, the car company broadcast a commercial with a father narrating the discrimination that his boxcar-driving daughter will face in her future life.

There was just one problem. At the time of writing, Audi’s six-person board had no women, and the American leadership team had only one woman – the senior director of human resources.

Audi spokesperson Michaela Schnellhardt said the company set in-house objectives in 2011 to increase support for and the prominence of women. Reported examples include a science camp for girls as well as excursions and internships designed to encourage young women to study engineering or pursue technical careers.

According to Schnellhardt, the company’s supervisory board is 35% female, the proportion of women in management doubled over the past decade and 30% of apprentices are female.

This year, Hildegard Wortmann, a woman, will join Audi to lead the sales and marketing division as well as join the management board.

“Audi was proud to share a commitment to equal pay for equal work on a national stage,” Schnellhardt said. “[The 2017 Super Bowl ad] ‘Daughter’ sparked a conversation, and we were encouraged by the public’s engagement. We stand in support of this universal message and are committed to continuing to driving progress going forward.”



For IWD last year, the beer brand highlighted on social media female employees in departments such as environmental safety, health management and mechanical engineering.

There was just one problem. Budweiser, like most alcoholic beverage companies, has historically run ads that are seemingly sexist towards women. And the brand still has the Budweiser Girls.

Budweiser spokesperson Jenna Knoll sent me the following statement.

“Budweiser takes female empowerment very seriously, beyond leading in advertising and reflecting culture,” she said. “In fact, more than 80% of the Budweiser brand team are women, including the brand vice president, Monica Rustgi. Nearly half of our US breweries and a quarter of our breweries in Argentina, China and Europe are led by female head brewmasters, who play a crucial role in brewing our best-known products.”

“As an advertising leader, it is our responsibility to equally represent and celebrate culture, including championing women. We’re proud of that support which will be showcased in our forthcoming IWD campaign launching [this] week.”

Note that Knoll did not specifically address the company’s past ads or the Budweiser girls.


In a lead-in to the NCAA Women’s Basketball Championship in March 2018, the US sport network ESPN released a spot that celebrates female empowerment and achievement in sports from the past, present and future.

There was just one problem. That same month, former legal analyst Adrienne Lawrence filed a lawsuit alleging she was not granted a full-time position due to her complaints about unwelcome sexual advances. The actions reportedly included lewd comments about female colleagues and female public figures as well as inappropriate exchanges with female colleagues.

ESPN vice president of corporate communications Katina Arnold said she would not comment on ongoing litigation. But she did give me the following statement.

“The promo you reference celebrates women’s historical accomplishments in sports. If we did decide to produce an ad about the women at ESPN, we would have no shortage of success stories to tell – including hiring the first woman in the booth for Major League Baseball (Jessica Mendoza), the first-ever full-time NBA game analyst (Doris Burke) and the first woman to call a regular season NFL game since 1987 (Beth Mowins). We employ a host of women in key executive roles, and we were recently recognized for it on the cover of CableFax Magazine’s Most Powerful Women issue.”



On IWD last year, Google unveiled a trends dashboard showing items including search volumes for keywords relating to gender equality and global interest in the #MeToo movement.

“This International Women’s Day, we’re recognising what the world is searching for and celebrating the strong, courageous women who are pushing us toward a more equal future,” Lorraine Twohill, the company’s senior vice president for global marketing, wrote in a corporate blog post.

There was just one problem. In November, an estimated 20,000 Google employees throughout the world walked out of their company offices a week after the New York Times reported that Google had allegedly protected high-level executives accused of sexual misconduct and paid a $90m severance package to one of the men.

Google did not respond to requests for comment.


The auditing service company is the title sponsor of the fifth-annual 2019 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and KPMG Women’s Leadership Summit. KPMG also released an advertisement showing a female golfer literally breaking through a glass ceiling.

There was just one problem. According to Accounting Today, KPMG has been the subject of a $400m class-action lawsuit alleging a pattern of gender discrimination, denying promotions to women and penalising them for taking maternity leave.

KPMG did not respond to requests for comment.

Procter & Gamble (Gillette, Pantene and Secret)

Two months ago, Gillette released an ad campaign targeting toxic masculinity.

There was just one problem. In the past, the shaving brand has seemingly objectified women in a way that could encourage the worst in male behaviour. American actress Kristy Swanson – best known for her first portrayal of the feminist icon Buffy the Vampire Slayer in a 1992 film – resurfaced these photos on Twitter.

kristy swanson

Further, self-described facialist and skin care expert Caroline Hirons also posted this tweet that received nearly 10,000 ‘likes’ and retweets: “If Gillette really want to make a change, perhaps they could start by looking at their pink Venus range for women that includes names like Passion and Embrace and costs more than the men’s ranges for the same thing.”

In the satirical words of Australian copywriter Ryan Wallman, product marketing towards women seems to focus on two sexist rules: ‘make it pink,’ and have a higher price than the male-focused product.

Neither Gillette nor parent company Procter & Gamble responded to requests for comment.


Martell strongly criticised Pantene for this advertisement six years ago that addressed the double standards in how men are perceived positively – but women negatively – for doing the same things or having the same personalities in the workplace.

“This shampoo commercial is promoting the ideals of feminism against a backdrop of hyper-sexualised women – look at those heels!” Martell said. “One in four women are told their appearance is a 'distraction' in the workplace. In some businesses, women have been sent home for not conforming to an antiquated requirement to wear heels.

“More concerning is the lack of awareness around racial undertones in this ad. Each model in the ad showed sleek, straightened hair – perpetuating the stigma that natural hair can actually be a career liability for women of colour. See what happens when one Googles ‘unprofessional hairstyles for work’. In some cases, women of colour are sent home and told to chemically straighten their hair in order to keep or get a job.”

Monica Almeida, senior account executive at Marina Maher Communications, responded to my inquiry on behalf of Procter & Gamble.

“Pantene truly understands the power of a great hair day, and the joy associated with looking and feeling your best. We believe that all women deserve this powerful feeling of transformation, so we’re dedicated to offering a wide range of products to celebrate all hair types.

“The advertisement you are referring to below was created in 2013 with the intent to spark a conversation about the labels society places on women. Pantene strives to create an experience where women from all walks of life are celebrated – be it in our approach to our advertising, our social channels or the product offerings we bring to shelves.”

Note that Almeida did not comment specifically on Martell’s criticisms.


In 2016, the deodorant brand created this advertisement showing the stress that women endure while preparing to ask their bosses about unequal pay.

There was just one problem. At the time of writing, only 27% (eight of 30 people) of Procter & Gamble’s leadership team is female.

Neither Secret nor Procter & Gamble responded to requests for comment.

State Street Bank

fearless girl

In 2017, the US bank State Street planted the award-winning Fearless Girl statue on Wall Street to promote an index fund comprised of companies that have a high percentage of women in senior leadership.

The statue’s plaque stated: "Know the power of women in leadership. SHE makes a difference." (‘SHE’ is the fund's NASDAQ ticker symbol.)

There was just one problem. State Street agreed that same year to pay $5m to settle US government charges that the company had allegedly discriminated against female and black senior executives since 2010 by paying them lower salaries and bonuses than white and male colleagues.

Brendan Paul, the bank’s head of media relations for North America, said the following: “State Street unequivocally supports equal pay for equal work. The [US] Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs audit conducted in 2012 doesn’t reflect the State Street of today, and we continue to prioritise increasing the diverse pipeline of talent at State Street.”

I asked Paul what State Street has specifically done, but he did not respond further. Meanwhile, Fearless Girl arrived in Australia last week ahead of IWD 2019.

Unilever (Axe Body Spray and Dove)

Dove is famous for spots such as the Real Campaign for Real Beauty. However, Dove’s parent company, Unilever, also owns Axe Body Spray – which has typically run ads that show women with ‘perfect’ appearances and contradicts the message of Dove’s Photoshop awareness advertisement.

That brings up an issue that is rarely addressed: should holding companies such as Unilever present women in the same, single way across all their brands? Or is it acceptable to have various portrayals in campaigns for various brands – which, of course, are each a completely different product for a completely different target audience? This is a topic that the marketing industry needs to discuss.

For its part, Unilever did launch an ‘unstereotype crusade’ in 2016.

“The ‘Unstereotype’ campaign is applicable to everything we do in life, from politics, to education, music and advertising,” Aline Santos, the company’s global executive vice president of marketing and head of diversity and inclusion told The Drum last year. “For Unilever, we wanted to do something that is close to home like our advertising and our workforce, and everything that impacts our core business.”

The larger context

Consumers are not stupid. They know that businesses exist first and foremost to make money. Just see Havas’ new Meaningful Brands 2019 report finding that consumers would not care if 77% of brands disappeared. Brand hypocrisy might just have something to do with it.

Sudden pandering to political or social issues appears disingenuous unless those causes have been built into brands over a long time – like what Ben & Jerry’s has done. Companies need to do more than broadcast a single ad campaign when it is convenient. After all, basic marcomms theory states that any message needs time and repetition to sink into peoples’ minds.

A good example

jane walker

In response to that brand hypocrisy that she sees, Martell created a ‘femvertising’ spectrum and litmus test that marketers can use to see if an ‘feminist’ advertisement is ‘lip service’ or something real.

Martell pointed towards the Diageo-owned Johnnie Walker whisky brand as one example that ‘took real steps to walk the walk and not only talk the talk’ with its Jane Walker campaign.

The company has given $250,000 to charities supporting women and participated in the CEO Action for Diversity and Inclusion movement, which pledges internal policies such as pay transparency, family leave, bias training and mentoring. 40% of Diageo’s board is also women.

“Johnnie Walker is truly a purpose-driven brand that has always been clear about what it stands for,” Ed Pilkington, Diageo’s North America chief marketing and innovation officer, said. “Whether it’s spotlighting cultural progress and diversity in America or celebrating the many achievements of women on the shared journey towards progress in gender equality, it all ties back to championing the communities moving this country forward and is entirely true to the brand.

“The credibility of our brands is only as good as who we are as a company. We want our employees to be proud to work at a company with inclusion and purpose at its heart, and we strive to create a diverse, welcoming environment where employees feel connected to our values and motivated to achieve their potential.”

I wish marketing agencies would act similarly to Diageo. According to a new report in The Drum, WPP’s gender-pay gap has only increased.

This year’s International Women’s Day

During this week’s IWD, Martell will stage a real-time live scoring of ad campaigns on her new Faux Feminism website with an eye towards comparing the messaging with the companies’ actual business practices.

“We don't need feminist advertising,” she said. “We need a business culture that is not promoting the gender divide, where women are still meant to only be beautiful. We need real steps taken by companies to ensure equality, not lip service in their ads.”

“Message without action creates an illusion of progress in our struggle for women's rights. This type of advertising tricks us into thinking society is more progressive than it truly is.”

The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by global keynote marketing speaker Samuel Scott, a former newspaper editor and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.

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