In the U.S., Women’s History month (March) coincides with International Women’s Day (March 8)… and usually includes a host of brand-led marketing tie-ins touting women-focused causes. But like Earth day-timed green marketing and other brand/cause crossover events, it can be difficult to separate the hype from true commitment to a cause. How much feminist branding is for real?
“Woke” to Hypocrisy
Brands have a long, sad history of feminist hypocrisy, pretending to be “woke” about women’s issues and challenges, even as their brand’s internal operations are anything but gender-equitable. Company marketing departments charge forward with their women-focused campaigns, only to have the brand held up for ridicule because of the company’s history of poor handling of sexual harassment, lack of corporate diversity, and sexist marketing stereotypes used in ongoing campaigns.
As consumers and brand critics alike trust the hype less, and call out hypocritical brand behavior, brands must choose whether promoting a cause for brand profit is more risky than profitable. (Hint: it is very risky.) People have figured out that advertising is not reality, and that brands all too often do not live up to the causes they so cynically employ to win consumers’ hearts and minds.
Tracking—and Grading—Faux Feminism
B2B marketing consultant, TEDx speaker and author Katie Martell has been speaking out about the hypocrisy and cynicism in women-focused marketing. Starting in 2016, she began tracking such marketing efforts and grading them based on whether the campaigns truly reflect a commitment to women’s rights, equitable pay and opportunities, diversity and empowerment… or are just so much lip service. FauxFeminism.com examines recent “fem-vertising” campaigns, assessing the tone and hidden messages in the campaigns, and adding details such as:
- How well the corporate cultures and leadership reflect true diversity;
- Whether they are transparent about and committed to pay equity;
- If they offer family leave programs;
- Whether they practice inclusive hiring;
- If they push suppliers and partners to also be diverse and inclusive;
- Whether their “regular” ads objectify or stereotype women; and
- Whether they do more than produce shiny ads in support of progress.
So far, faux feminism seems to be winning. It doesn’t help that many of the companies espousing feminist values spend lots of time trying to sell women the idea that their products can improve on all of our many “flaws”… while overcharging women compared to similar products for men.
Even much admired campaigns like Dove’s “Real Beauty,” aimed at defusing negative body image and unrealistic beauty standards now deemed an “epidemic” among young women, suffer from association with other brands in parent company Unilever’s roster. How woke can a company be that also offers Axe Body Spray, notable for its incredibly sexist marketing campaigns? And while Unilever has 50/50 male/female corporate board representation, it only has 31% women in executive leadership positions.
Many marketers get the tone right, but fail on Faux Feminism’s broader tests. Nike’s 2019 Oscars spot, “Dream Crazier,” promoted women shutting out the voices of naysayers and just doing the things that make them feel strong and inspired. It rings true at an emotional level (thanks to agency Weiden + Kennedy's brand passion), even if Nike’s past efforts at gender marketing have sometimes missed the mark. Nike’s efforts aren’t aimed at elevating women so much as attracting women to buy Nike fitness gear and apparel. They’re not fooling anyone. And deeper commitment to gender equity is “farmed out” to youth in sports organizations around the world, rather than being promoted directly at Nike. Finally, of fourteen positions on Nike’s board of directors, just three are women; only two women hold positions among the nine corporate officers.