Faux Feminism Site Challenges Brands to Test Their Cause Commitment

Faux Feminism

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.


The highly regarded and much awarded Fearless Girl effort by State Street Global Advisors loses much of its luster when you learn they made a $5 million settlement in a fair pay class action lawsuit. Audi went with a woman-focused Superbowl ad this year, only to have it pointed out that the firm had never focused marketing on women in the past, and has zero women on its corporate board. And Lean Cuisine was sharply reminded that “having it all” does not include eating packaged “diet” food, obsessing about being skinny or generating tons of plastic waste. Martell rated the Nestle-owned company OK in some areas (internal leadership, parental leave policies), but they talk more about diversity and gender equity than practice it; and their marketing is all about “diet culture,” exploiting women’s insecurities to sell not-very-healthy packaged foods. Martell wrote at length about the entire “having it all” trope as a sexist construct in itself.

Why this matters

We can only fix problems we see. Most men in the workplace were shockingly unaware of inequities until #MeToo broke open the wounds of women who felt marginalized, overlooked, undercut, underpaid, harassed and even driven from their chosen careers in those same workplaces. Marketing that promotes feel-good stories about women and success promote the idea that we are all doing just fine. 

One could argue that seeing diversity and inclusion messages in marketing led many people to believe that was the real world for everyone—only to have #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo and the 2016 Presidential election shatter that false belief. Perception is not, after all, reality; should marketing encourage us to see the world as it is not, instead of showing it as it and pushing us to be better? This is what brands enlisting any cause marketing must consider. If you’re contributing to a false narrative, you’re doing neither your audiences nor your brand any favors.

Cause for the Right Reasons

Be true to brand values. And where “fem-vertising,” or any cause marketing is concerned, take some tips from Katie Martell.

Think twice about tying brand marketing to a cause. If you can’t live up to that cause, find a cause you can live up to.

Go beyond a hashtag. If the cause isn’t worth full commitment outside of the marketing budget, don’t even go there.

Practice what you preach. Make sure your organization, culture, policies and practices align with the cause… or be prepared to hear about it from your customers.

Use your power wisely. Marketing has the power to make positive change. Use your power positively, not cynically. Make a difference.

Be the change you want to see happen.

Arleen Lorrance, The Love Principles



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