Allie Long

Feminism sells: Feminist ads are still ads

Despite the aesthetic push to a more feminist tone of advertising, the message remains the same. We should find a man, and do it now. 



In a lot of ways, gender-based advertising hasn’t progressed since the mid-twentieth century, even though companies superficially try to convince audiences otherwise. This is especially true for advertising geared toward women, which falls into several categories: get a man, be like a man, be more attractive, be naked, or be, er, empowered.

The difference is that advertisers today have latched onto trendy “authenticity.” Much like tell-all Instagram posts about the extreme posing in previous posts, advertisements like those of Dove try to distract women from the fact that they’re selling us something we likely don’t need to fix an insecurity we didn’t know we should have. (Full disclosure: I use Dove deodorant.)

Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign tries to convince us that our liberation hinges on smooth skin and white armpits even as it touts women’s stories of so-called body positivity and introduces us to hashtags such as #beautybias.

The message is clear when we look just below the surface. In fact, it doesn’t differ much from this Clairol ad from the 1950s:

The only difference between them is that Clairol’s appeal to our desire for the “natural” look is overt. Whether we like it or not, Dove is selling us a line of products made to achieve the same end. Bottom line: if we have to buy something to achieve what nature intended, nature didn’t intend it.

The same goes for makeup, dieting products, and clothing.



In that same vein, there is the realm of unnecessarily gendered products. Take cigarettes. The advertising strategy went from “you’ll want to be a man when you see him smoke this cigarette” (see above) to “we made this cigarette especially for you.” (“Aren’t you glad you’ve earned the right to buy something that can kill you?!?”)

Virginia Slims’ iconic “You’ve come a long way, baby” is no different than Trojan’s XOXO condom commercials (“Smart. Sexy. Confident.”!), which are essentially delicately scented and discreetly packaged condoms that women will feel more “comfortable” buying. (I have a lot of feelings about this.)

Are these types of advertisements indicative of progress? Of women being an afterthought? Or simply of a clever way to make more money? Uh, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the last one. Condoms For Men(!) were already doing the job pretty well, and Virginia Slims didn’t have a prayer of pretending that it was making women’s lives easier considering it was selling a dangerous product. And on the Trojan end of things, can we really say it’s progressive to insinuate that women are embarrassed by regular ol’ condoms? That doesn’t sound very sex positive to me. But here are the ads side-by-side for comparison:

Also, notice how all products geared toward women emphasise being delicate. Until…

ADS INVOLVING SPORTS #manstuff #womenarestrong

Who among us can forget Always’ “Like a Girl” ads, which recall Nike’s 1995 “If You Let Me Play” ads? Then, we get U by Kotex’s new advertisement about not using periods as an excuse to bum around all day. (Like I needed an excuse. And more on periods in a bit.)

These ads are doing the most to evoke an emotional response from consumers, and, really, it works:


I have a lot of personal problems with sports (but that’s because I’m a sad, uncoordinated writer who feels that art is undervalued in society), but I am by no means trying to undermine the value of female involvement in them.

Deep down, we know that Always, Nike, and Kotex don’t care one iota if their buyers play sports. Maybe individual employees do, but the purpose of a business is to turn a profit.

The bar for gender-based advertising is so low that these “radical” campaigns do just enough to ride the wave of feminism without garnering any of the backlash that actual feminism does. Above the surface, it’s progressive. Below the surface, it’s an attempt to reach the demographic that consumes more than any other (younger women but also women in general) without alienating anyone – no matter his or her demographic – in the process.

It’s cool to reclaim doing things #likeagirl as an affirmation. It’s not cool to use so-called empowerment to turn a profit. Just because it’s a permitted, intelligent business practice doesn’t mean it gets to occupy a moral high ground. An ad is an ad is an ad is an ad when push comes to shove. Emotionally evocative ads are just…sales tactics, not first steps into activism.

Speaking of *ahem* feminine hygiene products, there’s a tug-of-war between emphasising functionality vs. the, uh, lifestyle obtained by their usage.

Here’s an incredibly ascetic Tampax commercial from the 1980s:

In my opinion, this is about all that needs to be said. Why try to entertain us with ads for toilet paper, paper towels, and tampons? We’re going to buy them regardless, and as long as the applicator isn’t cardboard (yeesh), there just isn’t that much difference. Just give us the specs and a visual of absorbency with that blue liquid if you must.

But lo and behold: the “periods are great” tampon/pad commercial of old and its equal but opposite “critique of the ‘periods are great’” tampon/pad commercial.

We get it, Kotex. You’re the cool brand. Sure, it’s clever, and we were definitely all nodding our heads in agreement when the commercial first aired. But colourfully-patterned tampon and pad wrappers don’t make up for the fact that the product is the same if not worse than other brands.

Kotex, however, figured out a way to channel women’s frustration with the romanticisation of periods to sell. The former ad plays on our wishful thinking despite its ridiculousness to sell a mundane tampon, while the latter co-opts feminism’s reclamation and normalisation of the reality of a period to sell us a whimsically-packaged but ultimately mundane tampon.

The motive is clear either way: sell, sell, sell. Which is fine. What else can we expect these companies to do? It’s the co-option that‘s bothersome.

There’s no such thing as a feminist purchase. Some purchases are more socially responsible than others, but ultimately, they feed into the same machine. (“Capitalist hegemony,” I say, pretending it was tongue-in-cheek.)

Boiling feminism down to a set of individual choices makes us believe that a movement depends on something on which it does not. Women have a lot of buying power, and companies know this. But framing themselves as the Best Feminist Company based on their style of advertisement is a red herring of a competition. Systemic oppression doesn’t give two shits which tampons we buy. In fact, it depends on the system that sells them to us. Yay. (Not that I’m mad about the invention of tampons by any stretch.)

I leave you with the Titanic of women-directed advertising: The woman who has it all and the woman who prides herself on not having it all. Fantasy vs reality.


The Charlie Girl is who we want to be, and the Yoplait Mom is who we are…? That’s how ad agencies seem to think, and perhaps it’s true. In fact, the Yoplait commercial is refreshing, but it doesn’t matter! Yoplait isn’t a more ethical yogurt, but if the company can get someone to buy it based on the perception that it is, well, then the advertising worked.

I’m often asked by vocal detractors of feminism why I’m not offended by heavy makeup in celebrity endorsed ads, romanticised tampon commercials, or sexy lingerie billboards. Like many, they have bought into the idea that what people consume or wear or eat determines their calibre of feminist. They have also bought into the idea that feminism only supports a certain brand of womanhood: i.e., one that eschews all pretence, conventional femininity, and scantily clad women prancing around onscreen.

It’s not the content of an individual ad, the consumption and presentation of an individual woman, or one individual’s lifestyle choice. We’re fighting a system here: a system that takes the palatable parts feminism from us and sells them back to us in the form of a product using an advertisement under the guise of sincerity.

That isn’t cynical. There are obviously many feminists in the business world, but the goal of a company isn’t to make our lives easier or to be at the forefront of social change. It’s to sell a product. It’s to sell us the notion that our many choices as consumers are equivalent to liberation from a capitalist patriarchy. It’s a false choice if I’ve ever seen one.

I’m not buying it.

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