Career
Comments 8

“Strong Woman” Marketing: Not The Title Of A New Ad Agency

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Being a woman whose career has spanned advertising, social media marketing, and public relations, my feelings toward large, national, and particularly inspirational brand campaigns have been tainted. The reality is that behind every large marketing stunt telling a group of people that they’re worthy of love, or education, or even equal pay (for real though, equal pay), is a company making millions of dollars banking on the fact that their customers will relate to their brand. That their brand will feel “human”. That a new insecure consumer will surface and they’ll immediately be able to piggy back off of, and make money from, whatever self-doubt they have.

That’s not to say it’s not brilliant, it’s just that as a woman working in this field, it’s hard to believe that any brand selling me on being a “strong woman” truly gives an honest shit about me being a “strong woman”. You want to sell me soap, so you’re going to tell me that the kind of beauty I possess is realistic and barefaced, natural even. You want to sell me underwear, which is as next-to-nothing as I can get before going completely nude, so you’re going to chill out on the photoshop because naked people aren’t intrinsically smooth all over. You’ll do this parallel to plastering messaging about the models in your advertising campaigns not being photoshopped on every billboard across Manhattan. You want to sell me menstrual pads, so you’ll probably also want to sell me on feeling powerful, confident, and strong, because what woman in 2014 doesn’t want to feel those things?

Sounds cynical, right? That’s because it is.

That said, when I put down my critical thinking cap and take off my advertising cloak — two invisible articles of clothing I try to put on every morning, before I wash my face with your product, wear your product, or apply your product liberally to my forehead wrinkles (…I’m 26 and I have forehead wrinkles, what do you want to sell me?) I ask myself one honest question:

“What is one thing I’d like to see change about the media?”

I can say, without hesitation, that the #1 thing I would like to change is the way women are portrayed.

Last week, Always embarked on a new campaign called #LikeAGirl. The basis of the campaign poignantly points out that when young adults are asked to demonstrate various actions “like a girl”, they act in a way that is flimsy, weak, and melodramatic. When children are asked, however, they demonstrate the only way they know how. They run, fight, and throw furiously, like a girl, the same way a boy would, presumably before the age at which they are digesting media that tells them otherwise. It successfully capitalizes the feelings that span prepubescent girls learning about their changing bodies, pubescent teens experiencing the physical inconveniences that come with being a girl, and adult women, like myself. Grown ups in a world where doing “X” like a woman still never really feels as commanding as it would if I were a man (or recently, an arts and crafts chain).

It’s hard to feel like you can ever win in the media, when half of the magazines, networks, and brands out there are telling you that you need X, Y, and Z to make him feel hot. That your ass isn’t fat enough, that your stomach isn’t flat enough, that men can be confident in the board room but women should be confident in the bedroom. Sure, it’s easy to say that undoubtedly Dove, Arie, and Always’ sales have, and will spike due to the inspirational nature of these campaigns, but maybe, just maybe, they are pioneering a new branding trend, spawning a shift in the way marketers think women want to be spoken to.

Brands have both the power and responsibility to play a strong hand in the way culture shifts. If given the choice, I’d rather have big brands and companies, brands that I’ve represented and worked with, global and corporate conglomerates that have female brand managers, CEOs, and presidents, pushing out messaging that shines a positive light on what it means to be a female. That we ARE strong. That we ARE smart. That we ARE capable. Women everywhere are fighting the good fight to be seen not as extensions of our male counterparts, but as equals, and it is encouraging to see brands fighting the good fight alongside us. No, we don’t need to buy your soap, underwear, or feminine care products to feel good about ourselves, but as a woman I can at least appreciate a brand that isn’t shoving “15 tips and tricks to making your nether regions look, smell, and be more attractive to the male species” messaging down my throat.

Perhaps we’ll see more of these ads infiltrating television, the Internet, and women’s magazines, and in turn, infiltrating the minds of the impressionable young women (and men) consuming them.

Note: This post originally appeared on Medium. For more of my writing on Medium, click here!

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8 Comments

  1. As much as I generally love your posts, I want to throw out a different perspective here. That women aren’t portrayed as weak. That ads are portraying woman as the gentler, softer souls they often are. That as a career woman, you are annoyed at advertisements that aren’t for you. There are an entire group of women out there who want nothing more than to be mothers or nurturers, who take pride in their softer touch. The ads are for them. And those women aren’t weak. Smart, capable women exit the work force all the time, on their own accord, to be stay at home mothers.

    Is this society’s lessons at work, telling women to quit and be Moms? Couldn’t it just be a very real internal desire, the remnant of tens of thousands of years of being nurturers? Could the fact that kids act the same and then grow different be because whoever did that study wasn’t qualified to do it?? Because those kids haven’t had testosterone and estrogen kick in yet. Those girls don’t have a primal part of their brain telling them to be attractive to males. Those boys don’t have testosterone telling them to be more aggressive. But they will have those things and it will change them. It, not society, will change them.

    I remember reading in Freakanomics about how women have lower salaries but women are also more likely to graduate from an Ivy League college and spend a career doing probono law or to work for a non-profit. Is this weakness; Ivy League educated women bowing out of the money race because society says they are weak? Or is it women being the softer, kinder, more caring souls that they naturally are? The kinder souls that make our world a better place.

    Don’t miss the big picture, most of the world’s most screwed up societies are screwed up largely because when women aren’t viewed as equal and given power, the society has more violence and rape and probably corruption.

    From my perspective, I hope women are never like men. The testosterone running through our veins has, for thousands of years, made us more aggressive and violent. I remember reading Greg Mortenson’s “Stones into Schools” and reading a quote that went something like: “the empowerment of women cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all.” I believe that.

    I think you’re wrong to interpret those advertisements as weakness. They don’t undermine a women’s competence or intelligence. They are advertising to a very real group of some who have a very real motivation to find a man and start a family. If you have a problem, take it to the women, not the advertisers.

    In short I think you’re wrong to care so much about ads. Women are strong and most men know that. If our society tells women to act tougher and to care more about money and power, that is a step backwards as a society. If society tells women to not be gentile or soft, because women are afraid of looking weak, that’s a step backwards. And frankly, it would all be for nothing. I think most men view women as equal, strong, smart, and capable. There’s no battle to win here, just one to lose.

    • Hey Dave!

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and thoughtfully respond to my article – different opinions are always welcome in this space!

      That said – I think perhaps we’re agreeing (and even disagreeing – which is cool, just shows that we’re humans and not robots) on a few things, actually!

      Firstly – I think perhaps you may have misinterpreted part of my piece. I am not aiming this at the different content buckets that exist in advertising (ie – campaigns about being a “strong woman” like Dove, Arie, Always, see also: Pantene’s new spot about women saying sorry VERSUS commercials that portray women as parents, stay at home moms, care takers, etc). I fully recognize that this is a strategy choice based on a brand’s demographic. In fact, I’ve worked with brands whose main goal was to appeal to parents and families, and a campaign looking to grab the attention of that audience looks vastly different than a young adult lingerie brand campaign looking to eliminate photoshop stigmas. (You could even argue that while the Always commercial I reference features young girls, it, too, is looking to get the attention of moms who are hoping to raise their daughters to feel empowered and strong.) In this case, empowered and strong has nothing to do with a career, but a word choice in the commercial. Empowered, in my eyes, is not an antonym for kind or caring. I applaud many of my genders’ qualities, compassion being one of them.

      So – this is less about interpreting parenting commercials as weak and career commercials a strong, and more about taking a critical look at the way advertising and the media are portraying women’s bodies and our minds. And when it comes down to it, I would rather see a commercial accepting and raising up women of ALL ages, genders, career paths, and ethnic backgrounds, than see commercials where women are made to feel like our bodies and minds (both of which I think we agree are amazing features in women – just the way they are) aren’t quite enough, and there is plenty of the latter in current day advertising.

      This was more looking at the shift in that type of marketing, acknowledging that there are more and more brands looking to support women in every area of our lives – that we deserve JUST as much of a shot at being CEO as we do at being great moms, that we can, and SHOULD, have the option to have both if we so choose, just as men do. (And if we choose not to, that’s quite alright. Parenting is the hardest job there is). I am in NO way saying that parenting commercials undermined women’s competence or intelligence (in fact, no where in my piece do I even address parenting, stay at home moms, or commercials that are overtly appealing to that demographic by producing content that portrays women as mothers.)

      The truth is, pick up ANY women’s magazine and flip through the ads – Young girls (I started reading Cosmo freshmen year of high school – so let’s ballpark ages 14-18, the ages when young girls are body conscious, insecure, and impressionable) are exclusively seeing ads and campaigns telling them that they’d get more dates if they did XYZ or that if they just used [insert product] men would be more attracted to them. I know you’re not a dad (yet), Dave, but I can tell you if my father knew how that made ME feel when I was 15, he probably would have been less inclined to let me read Cosmo. Those are the ads that are undermining a women’s competence and intelligence. SO here’s where I think we disagree – I think it’s wrong NOT to care so much about ads. “Women are strong, and men know that”, but YOUNG girls don’t. YOUNG girls and boys are growing up in a world that is over-sexualized, and I fiercely and unwaveringly feel that the shift in dialog we are seeing is important to care about. And should I ever have a son or daughter, I want them to care, too.

      It’s not about how men view women, it’s about how women view themselves. That’s the battle, and we’re fighting it, every day.

      (If you’d LIKE to read my thoughts on the career vs parenting conundrum, you’ll find that I truly feel there is no “field guide” to being a women – that being “strong” lies not in what career choice you make, but more in authentically choosing your own direction, whatever you feel is best for you: https://medium.com/human-parts/choose-you-1897c14507d5)

      • Hey Carley,

        Thanks for the full-on, non-brush-off response. It’s great to have a conversation on this

        I definitely agree teen advertising is messed up. I have 8 female cousins under 18, so I absolutely dislike the idea of them being insecure or self conscious. But I’m also aware that teenagers, both boys and girls, are really into the opposite sex. Boys hang out and spend tons of time talking about girls. Girls spend tons of time talking about girls. It’s a really big focus for teenagers. There’s just no changing that in my opinion.

        I don’t think that most teenage guys read a lot of magazines (or at all). But a magazine wants to catch a teenage guy’s attention, the most effective way to do so is likely by using breasts. And I don’t think guys should take offense to that. It doesn’t need to change in my opinion. Hormones are hormones and hormones aren’t evil. And on the flip side, if you want to attract girl’s attention a giant bulge just doesn’t have the same effect. Men and women are different in that respect. But “10 tips to get his attention” or “10 ways to look stunning in summer” they will see, pick up, and read. Even if men didn’t exist, women would still dress up. Women don’t always dress up for men; lots of women dress up because going out into society looking like crap isn’t something they want to do. It is just another genetic difference in my opinion. Point being, I don’t think it is realistic to imagine those ads ever going away.

        I also don’t feel like your post talks about the teen girl self-image problem directly. It was more about women in general. I do agree teen image is a problem and I don’t agree that ads are responsible. Ads are servicing a demand… not creating it. Sexual attraction and competition for attention are real things and they pre-date advertising.

        If you want to help teenage girls be more confident and less worried about image, give them a better sense of self. In my experience, sports has been a big part of the answer for addressing female image problems. Girls end up working on a team, together, instead of gossiping about each other. They gain a sense of identity and strength. I think expecting ad companies to not advertise using sex is unrealistic. I think getting more girls to play sports is do-able.

        My point about mothers wasn’t that you’re saying ads to moms should go away. My point was that single women in their twenties or thirties may want very badly to attract a man’s attention. They want a companion. They want a family. Most single men at that age probably do too for that matter (although, women maybe more? Some girls seem to get baby-fever at a certain point). That creates a demand for products that help grab that attention: makeup, sexy clothing, etc. I was just trying to say that I think that desire in a woman is natural and okay, and so it is also okay for a company to advertise to it.

        I don’t like that ad you referenced. It’s telling the girls to stop saying sorry so they don’t look weak. I hate that. I think lots of people say ‘sorry’ all the time now. I do it. I notice other guys do it. At the very least the ad could have replaced ‘sorry’ with ‘excuse me’. It’s like a women feeling like she can’t compromise because it will show weakness. It’s nuts. I just really hate this whole “act strong” thing. Women are sssooo strong. You don’t need to act like it. Genius’s don’t need to act like a genius. Genius’s who are humble are better genius’s. Strong people who are overly nice are great. Be the Richard Branson of strength: Don’t wear a power tie, don’t even wear a tie, and if you can, get other people to take off their ties. The point being that you should worry about being strong and being a leader, not acting strong or acting like a leader.

        Anyhow, I don’t mean to be a pain in the ass or to jam my opinion in your face. We can agree to disagree on some points… I just generally enjoy and agree with all your stuff and this one I didn’t jive with at all. If you care to keep talking about it, great. If not, I’ll still keep reading!

        Best,
        Dave

  2. I loved this post. I don’t watch a lot of TV and thus don’t see many commercials these days but I also know that I’m hardly ever represented. Not truly at least; as a strong independent woman. I’d gladly see more ads aiming at that.

    • Thanks for your thoughts! It’s very true – and I feel like men, REGARDLESS of how much they love women, and think they understand woman, and appreciate, respect, and value women, will never understand what it’s like to feel not accurately represented.

      Thanks for reading!

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