We need to demand companies walk the talk behind their feminist advertising

When I first saw Under Armour’s latest ad campaign, I did a double take. Are they seriously trying to encourage women to buy their exercise gear by declaring #ImPretty? When I finally clicked for more information I discovered they were actually trying to play on sexist tropes, not express them.

This got me thinking about how feminist advertising has become a staple in recent years. It seems like a girl can’t buy soap, shampoo, or clothes without getting a spritz of female empowerment with vanilla or lavender. There’s also a growing body of research on the trend of marketplace feminism, or “empowertising” as coined by Bitch Magazine founder Andi Ziesler.

As soon as feminism took off in the early 19th century, advertisers began to adapt feminist slogans for their products. A great example is the American Tobacco Industry’s 1929 campaign that encouraged women to smoke in public—an activity previously reserved to harlots and trollops. With this campaign, cigarettes were called “torches of freedom” and stylish women were paid to strut down the New York City Easter Parade.

With the second wave of feminism in the 1960s, feminist leaders were loudly critical of empowertising. With Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, feminists saw advertising as a primary way that patriarchal views of women were communicated.

However, during this time we also saw a lot more women starting to work at ad agencies. As a result, ads became even more outrageously “feminist.” Revlon’s 1970s ads for Charlie perfume were another example, featuring an assertive, confident young woman galavanting around town. One such ad showed a woman grabbing a man’s butt, because apparently the pinnacle of gender equality is being able to sexually assault someone of the opposite sex without consequences.

Empowertising has really been gathering steam in the last few years, and in the year of “Pussy Grabs Back” there’s no signs of it stopping.

After all, women control 85 per cent of household purchasing decisions, and they know what they want to see. According to a survey conducted by SheKnows, 71 per cent of the respondents said brands should use ad campaigns to promote positive messages to women and girls.

The Holy Grail of empowertising is by far Dove’s campaign for Real Beauty that sells body moisturizer to women. Their multitude of commercials have achieved viral success, and helped change the modern feminist advertising playing field.

But as Ziesler writes for Salon (and in her book), when it comes to empowertising there’s more than meets the celebrity endorsement.

“In the past year, ads for Dove, Pantene, and GoldieBlox have made similar overtures to the progressive consciousness, with widely shared, overwhelmingly lauded videos crafted for maximum virality.”

Dove brings to light an important point of feminist advertising: what is the company itself doing about it? When feminists first asked this question, they got a disturbing answer.

Dove’s parent company Unilever is also one of the biggest peddlers of skin whitening cream in South Asia. Similarly H&M, which has its own slew of feminist ads featuring gender non-conforming models and armpit hair, has also been implicated in various factory controversies.

Empowertising’s focus has always been on individual women, and how they defy stereotypes, it’s time we turn the focus on corporations themselves, and instead ask them how feminist they are. What we find is that the treatment of wealthier, whiter, more upper-class Western women is very different from their poorer or ethnic counterparts in other parts of the world.

While I know that it’s impossible for us to all stop shopping at our favourite stores, I still believe it’s important to shine a spotlight on how corporations conduct their business and try to force them to be accountable.

So it’s time to lean in, turn corporate business practices into the next feminist frontier, and make sure our purchases do the most to help as many people as possible.