Why I’m Tired of Brands Telling Women How to “Be Better”

Women have been targets of marketing messages ever since manufacturers realized who in the household primarily decided or influenced what products to buy. But the personal care market is especially exploitative, manipulating our inner insecurities to sell us stuff to (purportedly) make us more beautiful, slimmer, more fashionable, cooler… or just more insecure.

It’s actually refreshing to see young women expressing strong disapproval of brands that sell by prodding our inner fears of imperfection. The latest to fall afoul of female brand skepticism is Benefit cosmetics.

A Sexist Message to Sell Makeup

The makeup brand ran a UK campaign to its prime target audience, teens and young women, suggesting that young ladies consider skipping class rather than forgoing their makeup routine. A Debenhams/UK department store customer shared the point-of-purchase display reading “Skip School Not Concealer” on Twitter. 


Of course, the tweet excited multiple retweets and comments about emphasizing looks over education. A young male commenter noted that there was something wrong with promoting strength, education and creativity to young men, while telling girls they just need to be pretty. Negative press coverage amplified Benefit’s tone-deaf marketing ploy.

Benefit has made faux pas in the past with tasteless fake movie title tweets and a fat-shaming hashtag. It appears their marketing team still hasn’t figured it out…

“Own It”… or Own Up

Even brands with a history of “being woke” about women’s issues have recently issued campaigns that strike too many wrong notes. Maybe we’re just hyper-aware of body image and self-esteem in our current era of social media bullying and selfie-obsession. Or, in the era of “She Persisted,” women are more sensitive to stereotyped messages as a norm to be disrupted. Or, maybe younger audiences are just more skeptical of brand sincerity than past generations, and more vocal when they feel brands aren’t measuring up to their own marketing.

Special K cereal is one brand previously among those focused on diet and slimness that has altered its message. Lately it has touted the benefits of healthy food choices. In its newest campaign from Leo Burnett (reclaiming the account after it was briefly moved to JWT), ads promote modern women “owning it,” referring to living active, healthy, busy lives while also making smart choices about what they eat. 

Even with this empowerment theme, however, the ad shows women in largely traditional gender roles. And the “healthy choice” angle is dubious; they’re selling processed food of little nutritional value, not the far healthier veggies, fruits and proteins which make cameo appearances in the ad. (But hey! We’re low-calorie!) It’s actually a little scary that Special K has partnered with the U.N.’s Girl Up Foundation, a global women’s empowerment effort, to provide “nutrition education.” (Will that translate to “buy lots of Special K”?)

Would diversity in advertising help?

As brands tout empowerment and self-esteem, and just being our best damned selves, they regularly attempt to manipulate women into feeling their products will somehow make our implied imperfections go away. And that’s the thing that sticks in one’s craw. Why should we believe brands that tell us we’re wonderful while simultaneously picking at our marketing-manipulated sense of being not good enough, ever? And why would those brands still expect us to see them as sincere?

No wonder so many younger consumers are switching to less expensive generics, most of which don’t even try to advertise to us. Brand loyalty only stretches as far as our willingness to suspend our disbelief about brand sincerity.

Factor tone-deaf marketing on top of the “pink tax,” and it’s no wonder women express disgust with marketing messages. When retail leaders claim that women’s products are more costly because they invest more in research and marketing; and when they dismiss the fact that much of that marketing plays with our emotions, it’s enough to make a woman go postal. (Wait for it: some man will likely say we’re at that time of month…)

Maybe if there were more women in creative decision-making positions, or higher up in client marketing groups, women would endure less manipulative marketing. In the meantime, if anyone wants to know why I’m passive-aggressively eye-rolling, it’s probably because I just saw a “be wonderful” ad aimed at women that seems very likely to have been created by men who want us to subliminally believe the opposite.

I’m going to go off and be my best self now…


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4 months ago


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