This post originally appeared in Digital Marketing Magazine - Published August 26th 2014
A well-known advertising industry magazine recently honoured me with a place on their coveted ‘50 under 30’ shortlist, and scrolling through the other honourees, it struck me how much the industry seems to have changed over the last few years.
There are women who are doing amazing things in digital, left, right and centre. From the ‘rad’ Rhiannon and Holly, who are pushing back against media representation on their blog ‘The Vagenda’; to the brilliant and brave Laura Bates who’s using social media to call out sexism and casual misogyny as part of the Everyday Sexism Project.
Feminism is entering the mainstream again and advertisers are beginning to take serious notice of it. The feminist voice is no longer the hilarious radical outlier, standing on the fringes being ridiculed. She’s part of a growing number of ‘normal‘ folk who hold the ‘radical‘ opinion that women are people too. Look around you, we’re in the grips of fourth wave feminism, and it’s been facilitated by the Internet.
It’s no secret that advertising holds up a mirror to our attitudes and ideals, so it’s positive to see an interesting range of brands adjusting their strategies to reﬂect these changing times. We can rejoice in the fact that sexist, lazy advertising is becoming less tolerated and brands are being forced to change their tactics or be left behind.
Veet’s recent ‘don’t risk dudeness’ campaign looked scarily outdated among this new, more feminist landscape. Looking back it’s easy to feel a bit sorry for them now. They were out on a limb, making jokes that people had been making for decades. Standing apart from a crowd that had moved on without them, all vulnerable like baby gazelles, never knowing that just around the corner the social justice lionesses were waiting to tear into them without mercy.
Advertisers in the know are reaping the rewards of their new found sensitivity, and the effects of commoditising feminism have been largely positive. Most signiﬁcantly there has been a sizable shift in attitudes towards the non-sexual functions of women’s bodies. We’re beginning to normalise menstruation and it’s thanks to the success of some brilliant advertising. Namely the awesome Hello Flo stuff, but I’d like to think that the ﬁlm Rubber Republic made for Bodyform, Bodyform Responds: The Truth, has played a part in that too.
Historically ‘sanpro’ was a bit of a ‘no go’ area for advertisers. No wit, just clichés, white chiffon trousers and, of course, those highly scientiﬁc food colouring experiments. But with the rise of the fourth wave, I’d argue that these brands have become some of the most desirable to work with. For those who are brave enough to take a gamble in this area, they can expect their stake to pay dividends. Some of the funniest, most shareable pieces of female focussed content have been tied to feminine hygiene brands, proving you can make positive changes and tackle difﬁcult issues with a wry smile.
Period talk is all over the place, and it’s bloody brilliant. It’s not all positive though, there’s a real danger of brands over stepping the mark and outstaying their welcome. What right does a beauty brand have to tell me to love myself the way I am, whilst simultaneously selling me their latest moisturizer? Not only is it insidious, it’s lazy. “Empowerment” seems to be the word du jour, but it’s meaningless. It’s an empty promise. It’s a cake with no icing or a birthday card with coins sellotaped inside it. It’s become a blanket term that’s snuck into the back door of countless branded manifestos.
In board rooms up and down the country, opportunistic types are having the same clueless conversations over stale croissants and disappointing sandwiches. “In 2014, we’re going to empower women!”; “Are we going to tackle rape culture?”; “Nah, we’re just going to populate our Facebook page with lacklustre motivational quotes and stock photography”.
I understand that not everyone is brave enough to say something that goes beyond clichés, but just because you know there’s a conversation going on, it doesn’t necessarily mean you should join it.
The fourth wave feminism bubble is ﬁnite and whilst it’s currently swelling as more brands jump on the bandwagon I’m curious to know how the landscape will look in 5 years’ time. I wonder if the same brands that pinned their strategies on their own kind of watered down feminist ideology will still be banging the same drum when the crowds disperse. More likely they’ll have moved on with them, leaving those of us who remember what they promised us to hold them accountable.
Somewhere in between all this, there are women like me, working in digital and wrestling with their consciences, as we try and use an industry which has been historically reductive in its representation of us in a meaningful way. There’s a balance to be struck here. Feminism needs a platform, and brands need to start treating women like people. I reckon we could be friends if we can ﬁnd a proper way of working together.
For what it’s worth I think the most important and useful thing we can do is use our positions and ambitions to take baby steps and form alliances with the bravest, boldest and wisest brands we can. We should aim to make content that opens up conversations and challenges our perceptions about women in society, and we should do it with wit, warmth and sincerity.