Feminism | Posted by Jocelyn A on 11/18/2010

“Feminist” Advertisements: Exploitation or Progress?

WHat Ornstein calls the Empowerment Mystique

WHat Ornstein calls the "Empowerment Mystique"

Peggy Orenstein’s “The Way We Live Now” piece in New York Times Magazine a couple months ago explores what she calls the “empowerment mystique,” or using themes of girl power to sell products that have nothing to do with promoting equality. She mentions several recent commercials by companies selling products unrelated to gender or discrimination, such as Verizon and Target, which send a message of empowerment for girls and women. This kind of ad, she claims, manipulates people to associate the company with sincerity and hopefulness. It is also a reflection of a society in which women hold the majority of jobs, and earn more bachelor’s degrees, master’s degrees, and doctorates than men.

Orenstein draws a distinction between the Verizon ad, which shows a series of young women speaking proudly and vaguely about the unbiased nature of air…

and a similar Nike commercial from the 90’s which showed girls describing the benefits of playing sports.

The latter had a specific purpose—encouraging schools and parents to promote girls’ sports teams and clubs. It also used real facts and statistics, and the company has ties with organizations that promote equality for girls in sports. Clearly, Orenstein is taking a strong stand against such advertisements when they don’t support a specific cause or aren’t in line with the company’s actions. I understand part of her concern—it is disappointing to find yourself being inspired and moved by a commercial only to find out that it’s actually just promoting a cell phone company. It feels a little bit like someone is taking advantage of your feminist pride.

But personally, when I see an ad on TV that celebrates female empowerment or individualism, it makes me feel good. Not just because there’s a girl on the screen telling me how us women are super cool, but because the existence of these ads indicates that feminism, however dulled down and commercialized, sells. In a world where every other ad features a half-naked woman selling clothing or a man making suggestive comments about hamburgers, I’m okay that people are trying to exploit my feminist instincts. Whether intentionally or not, these ads contribute to the rising acceptance of girl power in women and men. Shouldn’t we be happy that feminism, or whatever less controversial word we’re using these days, is “in”? Orenstein has a right to be frustrated at the advertising industry’s constant manipulation of human nature, but there’s nothing new about that. What is new is a society in which a company like Dove can advertise body lotion by telling us we’re all pretty enough without it.

Other Relevant Ads:

Sarah Palin Mama Grizzly Ad

Target “Free To Be You and Me”

Dove “True Colors”

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  • Katherine C. @ at 11:37 am, November 18th, 2010

    “the existence of these ads indicates that feminism, however dulled down and commercialized, sells.”

    Exactly what I was thinking- but the thing is, capitalism is a tool of the patriarchy, so using feminism to promote capitalism is kind of a bummer.

  • Nano Muse @ at 7:47 pm, November 18th, 2010

    @Katherine C:

    Capitalism isn’t a tool of patriarchy, it’s a tool of economy. It’s source and most of its history is rooted in patriarchy, but economy and capitalism, in and of themselves, aren’t inherently patriarchal.

    I’m all for these ads, both of them. All advertisements, even the most empowering ones, are designed to manipulate us into buying things. That is their definition and purpose.

    Advertisements can actually be an excellent and somewhat “hidden” indicator about what society still thinks of various issues, and the fact that girl power can be considered normal and even something good, something that sells, is awesome. We are no longer “objects” in society, but “subjects”, or agents of action, which is what both ads promote, even if they both end asking you to use this specific brand to do it.

  • Natalia @ at 12:47 am, November 19th, 2010

    I understand that capitalism is linked to patriarchy, but maybe these kind of ads indicate a change in patriarchy. As feminists, we always complain about ads that promote harmful gender roles or if they are straight out sexist, so what do we want from ads then?
    Yes unfortunetely they exist, but as we all know, whatever happens in the media heavily influences us. So having feminist ads gets us one step closer away from gender roles. I mean seriously, what do you prefer? A beer add with a bunch of semi-naked girls/swifer ad with a housewife cleaning


    an ad that empowers women.

    I don’t think this is a trick question.

  • Natalia @ at 1:45 am, November 19th, 2010

    gets us one step away***

  • What We Missed @ at 5:06 pm, November 19th, 2010

    […] talks about whether “feminist”-friendly advertisements are exploitation or […]

  • Dia @ at 6:58 pm, November 19th, 2010

    I like the Verrizon ad and I’ve never had any delusions about them being a feminist-friendly company.

  • Mary Ann @ at 11:14 am, November 21st, 2010

    Phew. That nike commercial gets me everytime!

    This is a fantastic conversation to have. When I was in college my gender class took on sexism in the media and we were very excited about Dove and the women’s empowerment they were using (yes to sell products, but that’s advertising!) in their commericals. We later found out that they are the same people who do the AXE commericals which are horrendously sexist. At first we were all heartbroken to find out such disturbing news. Yes, there should come a bit of frustration with people willing to promote two opposing messages, but at the end of the day the dove commercials brought something positive to the TV screen.
    I often think about companies who show off the non-profits they donate to so that you will want to support them. Do I like that they are manipulating? No. Do I like that non-profits are getting some extra help? Yes. Same thing really.

  • jULIET @ at 9:31 pm, November 22nd, 2010

    I definitely take issue with the verizon ads. It’s not advertising a social cause of any sort, and it’s just feminist rhetoric being co-opted by a corporation to sell something under the guise of being “socially-conscious” or “progressive”.

    But, it is definitely a step forward from all those stereotypical commercials that depict women’s only interests as cooking, shopping, cleaning and taking care of their kids (not that there’s anything wrong with that…) But yeah, you get my point.

  • I’ll See Your Feminist Ad, and Raise You a Make It Even Better | Real Living Beauty @ at 3:50 pm, January 6th, 2014

    […] My point of view isn’t new, and the naysayers provide a much-needed debate for how feminist ads can continue to improve. We will all benefit from more visible diversity in age, size, and color. (There are of course, the ones who do it really f*cking right.) […]

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