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Comment, Feminism

Dear Big Companies, Stop Prostituting Feminism

A shot of a cab. A male voice over. We are assured that mark may have liked “Bex” the way she was, but now she’s not fat anymore, he likes her even better. Cut to London street. He really wants to let us know that he didn’t mind when she was fat. Honest. It was totally Bex’s decision to lose weight. But he definitely likes her better this way.

Weight Watchers adverts, amongst many on our television recently, have turned to crowbarring feminism into their marketing campaign, there in dressing up their true message (hate yourself; lose weight). Other big brands appear to be doing this with varying degrees of sincerity – Marks and Spencer have announced that from 2014 they will make all their toy packaging gender neutral, whilst Pantene, the shampoo brand, have recently released an advert identifying the hypocrisy in the way we perceive men and women.


The Pantene ad depicts a woman and a man in equal situations being labelled differently. Where the man is “persuasive”, the woman is “pushy”. If the man stays up late to work, he’s “dedicated”, and if the woman does it, she’s “selfish”. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, 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.” It’s a bold advert with an explicit message, especially considering shampoo has literally nothing to do with anything in the advert. The actors have hair, but that’s about it.

Do you think men are seen differently to women in terms of power and ambition? Pantene thinks so too. Their new range of shampoos (£3.69, Boots) will help show the world this gender bias, whilst giving you a soft, healthy shine.

Sandberg is perhaps not the best arbiter of what is and isn’t feminist. Last year, she published a book called Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead. Ostensibly, the novel was to be doing the right thing – encouraging women to aspire in the workplace, and succeed in the business world as it exists today. This superficial understanding of equality and meritocracy, however, totally overlooked the structures that disadvantaged women currently in the their work, as well as ignoring the privileged position that she and other white, rich, middle class American women were in. She encouraged women to “lean in”, when really they needed to be stepping out and creating a new world devoid of oppressive structures.

When feminism becomes fashionable, PR companies will jump on the opportunity to use it to sell their product, even if it’s clearly incompatible. The weight watchers adverts are a prime example. For a company that really really hopes you dislike yourself enough to eat an eight calorie “chocolate” mousse for two months, trying to pretend like you want women to feel comfortable in themselves is just obviously false. Dove attempted to endorse the idea of non-homogenous beauty in their “Real Beauty” campaign, promoting the idea of varied body size with lots of women in pants rubbing anti-cellulite cream on themselves. For another product that sold on women feeling physically inadequate, it failed. In the 1960s, Virginia Slim used the new revolution of female emancipation to sell cigarettes, with campaign slogans like “you’ve come a long way, baby.” It contributed to a boost in sales for Virginia Slim, selling cigarettes to a marginalised female market. A marketing niche, ironically, that existed because of archetypal 60s sexism. It proved that when the time is right, feminism can be profitable.

There is an inherent problem with this prostituting out of feminism – so to speak – to sell products. Not only is feminism in many ways diametrically opposed to capitalism, but to use an ideology premised on liberating women from societal expectations of beauty (amongst others), to sell products that are designed to make you buy into those exact expectations, is flawed.

The difficulty is that it’s also not always easy to see through the façade, especially when many of the ways we define social norms come from places like advertisement. Using feminism to trick women into purchasing products or dieting means that their fundamental self-worth becomes displaced into a mentality of self-hatred. It’s deceptive and cruel, giving the impression that the advert is “on your side” and “hates that damn patriarchy just like you, sister”, when really it’s just spewing more sexist crap, hidden so that unsuspecting women don’t see it as a threat. This is most harmful because it goes unnoticed, so is just accepted without any real criticism. Like ingesting a tablet of crack, rat poison and Richard Littlejohn’s soul, disguised as a paracetamol.

To use advertising to promote or encourage feminism can be useful. If done sincerely, the means can outweigh the corporate ends. It’s when we’re deceived into believing that the company is being sincere, that the real danger comes in. Hazard: Products may contain sexism.

By Ruby Lott-Lavigna

Written January 2014

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