The XX Factor

In Defense of Using Feminism to Sell Things

Pantene has unfurled a new, feminist-themed ad campaign in the Philippines, and it smells really nice. A video rolled out on Monday features men and women facing a workplace double standard. The guy in the crisp suit is called a boss, but the woman in the black dress is bossy. When he gives a speech, he’s persuasive, but she’s pushy. Dad works late because he’s dedicated, mom because she’s selfish. Neat versus vain. At the end of the spot, the comely female show-off twirls as words appear onscreen: “Don’t let labels hold you back. Be strong and shine.”

Three cheers for smart, feminist commentary! Sheryl Sandberg tweeted, “This is one of the most powerful videos I have ever seen illustrating how when women and men do the same things, they are seen in completely different ways. Really worth watching. Lean In prize of the day for sure!” The Huffington Post UK gushed that the spot “reveals a powerful message about the undeniable nature of gender inequality in society.” The new ad push even has a hashtag—#WhipIt—that means whatever you want it to mean. (Are we whipping labels? Sexism? Our hair? All of the above?) The whole thing is so great, guys. Let’s go buy some Pantene Pro-V shampoo!

I mean, uh, let’s talk about feminism in advertising. These kinds of ads have a way of working you into a fragrant lather that smells first of the woods in springtime and then just of rage. Phase two sets in when you realize that Pantene probably doesn’t care about gender inequity in the workplace. They care about pushing hair product. They are cynically exploiting your idealism—not to mention real social ills—to rake in lucre. You are not fighting injustice. You are buying shampoo. 

What does it mean to “be strong and shine,” anyway? Not that there’s anything antifeminist about glossy hair, but fighting the patriarchy by hydrating your split ends seems kind of lame. Or does it mean resisting labels, misogyny, and the restrictive beauty standards that require, say, all actresses in Pantene commercials to be clear-skinned, slim, and fair of face? (I think the ad-world term for this is mixed messaging.)

But back to feminist advertising. Done right, feminist ads are great. I have no ideological objection to companies using female empowerment to sell me stuff. But spots like Pantene’s (and like Goldieblox’s, which definitely worked on me more than the Pantene spot does) are irksome because they equate challenging sexism with buying a product—and a beauty product, at that.

Compare the Pantene campaign with Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” which made waves in 2004 by showcasing six models with “real bodies and real curves.” Those ads didn’t claim soap could put an end to sexism or body insecurity. They simply presented the product alongside less conventionally figured women and asked viewers to reassess their stereotypes. You could endorse the message by buying the soap, but the soap itself wasn’t hailed as a solution. It’s a subtle distinction, but it helps explain why taglines like “Be strong and shine” (Read: save the world via lustrous hair) grate, whereas ones like “You are more beautiful than you thinkwork. Dove incorporated feminism without hollowing it out.

If that sounds credulous, consider that every single thing we encounter in advertising space is meant to sell us something. Quirky humor. A cute dog. Catchy music. Should this stop us from preferring the brands that speak to our idiosyncrasies? For instance, Kotex has a hilarious video sending up the pastel airiness of other tampon ads. I think it’s delightful, so I’ll consider rewarding Kotex with my business. Isn’t that how commercials are supposed to work? Am I being duped, or just voting with my wallet?

Our lives are peppered with consumer decisions. So the question becomes: What kinds of messages and signifiers do we want to surround the choices we make? I’m OK with being marketed to on the basis of my feminism, as long as I don’t fool myself into imagining that my purchase stands in for meaningful activism (and as long as the company doesn’t try to fool me into thinking that). I appreciate smart advertising. I am willing to support brands whose business strategies suggest to me that feminism matters. Most of all, I’m glad to see the message out there, getting more exposure than it would if companies stuck to eternally draping their products in naked ladies.