Femvertising: How Marketing Can Uphold the Gender Binary

It’s Monday morning, you’re scrolling down your Instagram feed, trying to catch up with your friends and favorite Influencer’s lives. 

Suddenly, a photo catches your attention. 

A brand that you started following not two weeks ago, that makes cute, cat-shaped handbags is now bombarding your feed with #bodypositivity ads. 

Uhm, what? 

It’s not that you don’t care for the body positivity movement. In fact, you probably care a lot. So, you silently wonder what smashing patriarchal and European beauty stereotypes has to do with cute, cat-shaped handbags. 

All the while, you promptly proceed to click the unfollow button. 

Now, that’s what we call some seriously shaky branding. 

And as annoying as it may be to us to see something “very off-brand” and trying too hard to keep up with social movements, we also know that clicking the unfollow button won’t automatically make brands correct their plot-holed branding. A scroll through any social media platform quickly reveals that brands jumping into “hot” trends that have little (or nothing) to do with their core message is way too common and, apparently, an acceptable way of bumping up sales. 

In this article, we’ve decided to tackle a “marketing trend” that, in the last few years, has really grown out of proportion and not exactly in the best way: femvertising

In today’s online, post-#metoo world, some brands recur to this tactic whenever they want to get the attention of women. To do that, they use women’s empowerment messages and stereotype-marketing as a way to create purchase intent and stay relevant in their audience’s minds. 

Now, don’t get us wrong: there’s nothing inappropriate or eccentric about using marketing strategies to create an impact in the world. If you have been following us for some time, you probably know that The Quirky Pineapple Studio (TQP Studio) is committed to helping mission-driven, service-based businesses impact the world with their voices, and we are super proud of that (because, who doesn’t want to live among empowered, independent, and fearless communities? #yay!). The problem is that, when used in a culturally incompetent way, femvertising does more harm than good. 

So, if you’re also tired of getting in full Sherlock Holmes mode whenever a “feminist” ad appears in your feed, and moreover, you want to understand the underlying issues behind this culturally incompetent practice (and how to add intersectional feminism to your branding, of course), this is your next read.

What is femvertising? 

Believe it or not, at the dawn of its time, femvertising was actually… a good thing (*stares shocked into the screen*). Yes, you read that right. 

The term was originally coined in 2014 by the execs of SheKnowsMedia, a flagship brand of SHEMedia, a New York City-based media group, right after the uber-successful Dove’s Real Beauty 2014 campaign. The term referred to a “new” form of advertising —one that sought to empower women through inspiring messages. 

As you may remember, the Dove #RealBeauty campaign soon became a ground-zero, inspiration-of-sorts for brands who wanted to smash rigid (and patriarchal) beauty standards. So naturally, with a new trend on the rise, in 2015 SheKnowsMedia launched the first “Femvertising Awards” to “honor the brands that are challenging gender norms by building stereotype-busting, pro-female messages, and images into ads that target women and girls1.

If you pay a quick visit to the awards page, you’ll notice that amongst the winners are some truly inspiring, mission-driven companies, like the tech non-profit Girls Who Code, and the plus-size lingerie brand Lane Bryant. So far, all seems coherent and inspiring, right? 

Better not to get ahead of ourselves. 

Because, if you check the winners for 2021, you’ll discover that Microsoft and Facebook are part of the privileged few. Yes, the tech and social media giants are officially “inclusive” and pro-women empowerment companies. 

Let’s be completely honest here. Yes, their ads were great and on-point. 

Yes, they created conversations around important social issues, like accessibility and the role of fathers in the education of children, but are a couple of ads enough to claim that these companies are “challenging gender norms” and “building stereotype-busting, pro-women messages”? 

After all, the 2020 Facebook diversity report revealed that the social media giant is anything but, and Microsoft has been dealing with sexual harassment issues that date back to 2019. 

Call us old-fashioned but in our books, companies that don’t have a feminist, inclusive, and culturally competent approach embedded in their brand identity (which means, they have not made real efforts to integrate these values into their brand) have no right to legitimately call themselves feminist, culturally competent, or inclusive. 

If we stick to those Everest-like standards, we would soon realize that most companies who freely label themselves as “inclusive” and “pro-women empowerment” are just piggybacking on the visibility and “popularity” of a movement that they don’t understand nor endorse.  And, unfortunately, the current “femvertising” trends have done nothing but facilitate this type of opportunistic free-ride. 

This is why femvertising or “faux feminism”, as Katie Martell has called it, needs to be dissected and discussed.

An unsolicited wrecking ball: how femvertising affects intersectional feminism

The problem with shiny advertising & marketing trends is that, in the long run, they end up doing more damage than good, both to your brand and to the “movement” that inspired them. When you have less-than-stellar employee branding, like Microsoft or Facebook, and you just go into the world calling yourself inclusive or feminist, some things start to happen. 

Here are the three most-common consequences of culturally incompetent advertising practices to the “Girl Boss” Movement (aka, femvertising).

You dilute the intersectional feminist movement’s political side.

Feminism is not about selling clothes or rounds upon rounds of self-care products. 

Feminism, according to Merriam Webster, is the belief in and advocacy of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes expressed especially through organized activity on behalf of women’s rights and interests.

And to quote Kimberle Crenshaw, who coined the term Intersectional Feminism, it’s a movement recognizing that barriers to gender equality vary according to other aspects of a woman’s identity, including age, race, ethnicity, class, and religion, and striving to address a diverse spectrum of women’s issues. 

In today’s current day and age, intersectional feminism includes advocating for trans rights – we’ve moved past the binary gender lens and are broadening our understanding of gender (and how it is a big social construct). 

This is why, when someone assumes themselves as feminists, they’re making a political claim. They’re stating to the world that they’re not willing to tolerate discrimination, lack of opportunities, disrespect, and patronizing attitudes towards another person. And since equality between genders is still in the making, declaring your stance on the matter is an act of bravery, particularly if the person comes from an underrepresented background. 


Now, when brands start marketing themselves as pro-women empowerment, inclusive, and open-minded but without truly incorporating those values in their brand message (or even worse, without fully understanding what they entail) they minimize and distort the struggle that thousands of folx who identify as women, trans, non-binary, assigned female at birth (afab) face daily. 

Their culturally incompetent marketing strategy robs the intersectional feminist movement of its fiery and political spirit, diluting it and turning it into an easy commodity. 

A capitalist, feel-good remedy of sorts. 

What’s even more dangerous is that this oversimplification of feminism creates the fake sense that “anyone” can become an ally by just consuming a certain brand, or behaving in a certain way. 

In this way, everybody can adhere to the movement… even if they’re not willing to take the uncomfortable, political stance that other activists had to take. 

It’s a sure reputation-destroyer (because consumers, in the end, are not fools).

When brands attempt to lure women into buying their products by portraying themselves as inclusive and feminist-oriented (but without really endorsing those values), they are setting themselves up for failure. 

Why? 

Because they forget that folx have a memory. We are not fools. With a  simple Google search, consumers can find out what the brand was saying (or not saying) before its sudden conversion to feminism.

As Brian Watkins reminds us in his book “Coherence: The Secret Science of Brilliant Leadership”, brand coherence is essential for creating know, like, and trust among customers. If your company has the privilege of having a pool of recurring customers, it’s important you recognize that your lucky situation didn’t happen by chance. 

Your customers perceive you in a way that makes sense to them, that they enjoy, like, and trust. They like you well enough to keep doing business with you. 

Now, picture the following scenario. 

What would happen if tomorrow you decided to do a full rebrand? If, somehow, you were to give a 360-degree makeover to your brand values, mission, vision, and even brand colors and other visual elements, what do you think would happen to your recurring customers? How many of them would remain loyal after such a huge change? Most likely, you’ve confused your clients and your audience.

Likewise, when a brand decides to do an overnight “feminist-makeover”, customers can sense that something is off. 

This is even more true if, before your rebrand, you held dear “traditional” values that, sometimes, conflict with some progressive agendas. If two months ago you were loudly defending family values, and now you go around saying that everyone is free to fall in love with whomever they want just to sell Valentine’s Day cards, how do you think your customers will react?

Femvertising tricks consumers into believing that “equality” has somehow been achieved.

When was the last time you heard (or even worse, encountered) some random dude proclaiming that “nowadays women have it all easy”? 

Or that “oppression is in their imagination”?

 As several studies have revealed 2, when feminism becomes an everyday commodity and the lines between the political movement and the marketed products start to blur, folx start to make harmful generalizations. 

Somehow, when they see feminism everywhere (or, at least, the diluted version of it), they start to believe that inequality is no longer “a thing”.

That kind of thinking presents a whole other set of risks. 

Several researchers have explained how femvertising campaigns can spark conversations around gender roles, stereotyping, and equality, particularly amongst the younger crowd –   however, the irony here is the diluted feminist “messages” don’t necessarily push folx towards deeper reflection regarding gender stereotypes, inclusion, or cultural competence.

In other words, folx become so exposed to “empowering” messages that they start assuming they already “know” and are “woke” without being self-reflective or aware of their own biases, stories, culture, beliefs, and harmful behavior.

Femvertising campaigns that went south

If you’re still with us, you may be wondering what distinguishes a genuine feminist campaign from a bunch of random “empowering” ads that only want to take advantage of the new hot advertising trend. 

The short answer: brand alignment. 

Or, in other words, is the campaign (and its empowering claims) consistent with the brand’s known personality? 

The key here is quite simple: if a brand launches an ad that makes its most loyal customers perform the proverbial eye roll, chances are we’re dealing with a serious case of femvertising gone south. 

Do you wanna know how #bad femvertising can look like in real life? Check out these three examples.

Audi’s 2017 #DriveProgress Super Bowl Ad (OMG)

What went wrong (in our opinion) and how we would improve it. 

Let’s start with the hook. “What do I tell my daughter? “Do I tell her that her grandpa is worth more than her grandma?” 

Although the shock value is undeniable, after hearing such a statement one starts to wonder what the marketing team was thinking. Phrases like this can spark controversy to get folx thinking, but it doesn’t necessarily provide actionable steps for folx to take after hearing the fact. At most, the opening line is “passive” – which is not really our style of doing things over here. 

However, the real problem lies somewhere else. 

A quick Google search confirms what Super Bowl viewers already suspected: as a brand, Audi’s main target is men aged 35 and over, who like a practical car, but love driving a powerful machine.” Not women, not even 20-something guys. Men who, obviously, love luxury, speed, and comfort. Men who are in the best years of their career ascension and thus, can afford the high price tag of their cars. 

And, as if this were not enough, a new Google search soon reveals that in spite of the stance they take in “favor” of equal pay and gender equity at work, Audi’s board of directors is composed exclusively of men (*facepalms*).

So, this begs several questions. 

Why would a company that has never advocated for women’s professional development before, and which sells its products to a male-only market, suddenly decide to run a women’s empowerment ad? What inspired such a decision? Was it a genuine desire for change, or a desperate attempt to jump into the femvertising trend to cash some profit? 

We’ll let you decide. 

Now, here’s how we would improve the campaign if The Quirky Pineapple Studio designed a culturally competent video ad for Audi and their #DriveProgress initiative:

Why not favor a softer approach instead of going all-in, making grandiose claims, and taking stances that the brand can’t really back up with hard evidence (it’s tough to portray yourself as a paradigm of equal pay with an all-male board of directors)? 

If luxury cars are Audi’s thing, a “typical” car ad with a woman driving and explaining how driving an Audi makes her feel powerful could have worked better. After all, there are a zillion women out there who love cars, are crazy about them,  and are ready to spend millions on the machine of their dreams. Yet, car companies still hesitate to invest their advertising dollars in this new audience. 

Or, instead of using storytelling that centers the father’s perspective of “what would he do/say” to his daughter, Audi could have flipped the script entirely.

What about letting the daughter decide and speak up for herself? What if they told a story from the daughter’s perspective or from a woman’s perspective and how the car made her feel luxurious, powerful, and comfortable? THAT narrative could have spoken to a different target audience directly, instead of passively feigning to “family men”.

Chanel’s 2014 Bizarre Feminist Rally

If back in 2009 you were amongst Karl Lagerfeld’s troops of followers, you probably know that Chanel’s creative director wasn’t in the habit of minding his words. 

His faux-pas were too many to keep a solid count! 

Amongst the most controversial ones are… 

  • A 2009 Harper’s Bazaar feature where he said feminists are “ugly”
  • A not-so-random comment in a BBC interview in 2006, where he called out Pippa Middleton for her lack of grace
  • And the infamous Metro interview in 2012, where he declared to the world that Adele was “a little too fat.”

With such a reputation under his belt, we were not surprised when the world frowned upon the little “feminist rally” that took place at the end of the 2015 Spring Pret-à-Porter fashion show. 

Note: The rally starts at min. 9:20

What went wrong (in our opinion) and how we would improve it.

To this day, fashion addicts around the world still frown when someone asks their opinion about Karl Lagerfeld’s “feminist rally” sharing that “The whole thing didn’t make any sense whatsoever.” 

The whole world knew that Lagerfeld was not a feminist. 

In fact, his behavior, odd comments, and controversies that surrounded Chanel for its unethical model casting practices revealed what he thought about women’s issues and inclusivity.

This is why on that September day at the Grand Palais no one knew what to think. The whole “rally” felt fake and completely off-brand. And several critics saw Lagerfeld’s performance as piggybacking on a movement to sell expensive clothes, or worse, as a no-so subtle mockery of women’s issues. 

If Karl Lagerfield asked The Quirky Pineapple Studio to design a culturally competent, intersectional feminist campaign for Chanel’s next fashion show, here’s how we would approach it:

First of all, we would have said no to the “rally”. 

If the intention was to send a message (as in letting people “know” that Chanel is ready to forego unrealistic beauty standards and embrace a more inclusive approach to model-casting) a photoshoot with diverse models (like the one Vogue USA put together in March 2017) or casting a diverse crew of models for that fashion show would have made a better statement.

Another idea would be to create a model-casting campaign prior to the fashion show, that called for diverse models in BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and disabled communities. THEN, if Karl Lagerfield was adamant about keeping the “Feminist Rally” at the end of the show, there was purpose behind the rally and the campaign – showing Chanel’s intentions to become more inclusive.

Panam’s 2021 Instagram #fail 

In March 2021 the Mexican shoe-making company PANAM launched a special campaign on Social Media to “honor” International Women’s Day. 

The result? 

One of the cringiest and sloppiest advertising flops in the history of femvertising. 

Unfortunately, the brand erased its original Instagram posts, but the internet has a way to keep the record. Here’s are the infamous “interventions” that started this whole mess:

What went wrong (in our opinion) and how we would improve it.

Absolutely everything (if you want our honest thoughts). 

First, you have the graphics. PANAM went as far as reproducing in their “intervened” sneakers the actual graffiti that women made on public monuments and walls during the 2019 International Women’s Day demonstration in Mexico. 

The problem is that taken out of context (that is, taken as mere “street art” and not as the only resource women have to express their anger, frustration, and fear regarding the ever-increasing domestic violence rates), the graffiti loses all its political meaning. 

Instead, it now reads as some cool art intervention. 

The second mistake is, of course, the copy. 

The caption roughly translates as “Get angry! Yell, express yourself, get angry. You’ve got all the right and we’re under the obligation of listening. This is the only way to change our environment. 70% of Panam employees are women. The other 30%, are feminists. At Panam, we’re feminists”. 

Did anyone in the back say “piggybacking on a cause”? Because that’s the vibe we get when we read this caption. 

The caption doesn’t convey the core values of PANAM or its brand message, nor does it call out the gendered violence and inequality that women in Mexico face every day. The mini “pep talk” sounds off-brand, bypassing actual women’s rights and concerns, and overlooks the complex systemic issues that women face every day related to gendered violence.

And finally, we question the relevance of the whole campaign. 

Why launch the ad on the 8th of March, when every Mexican woman is kindly reminded that domestic and gendered violence only increases year after year? Obviously, someone at Panam’s marketing team thought the whole campaign was brilliant and didn’t expect to get dragged down in the mud for its insensitivity. 

If The Quirky Pineapple Studio was in-charge of Panam’s marketing campaign around International Women’s Day in Mexico, here’s what we would have done differently to take into account cultural competence, intersectional feminist marketing, and human-centered strategies:

Because we know that this particular graffiti art embodies a message of pain and loss, we would have avoided artsy product interventions. 

Instead, we believe that a press release stating that Panam is committed to offering Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training to their international staff, would have fared better. 

Another way to approach this campaign is to amplify the local organizations and groups that are already on the ground working towards gender equality in Mexico and uplifting THEIR campaigns. This approach doesn’t add noise and detract from International Women’s Day and instead helps to raise awareness for different ways their audience can help.

*Reminder that your brand doesn’t need to be the “voice” for all issues. Your brand and business can be used as an amplifier for other organizations and companies that are already speaking out on a cause. 

3 ways to add feminism to your brand (without piggybacking on anyone)

Now comes the million-dollar question: Is there such a thing as an “appropriate” femvertising campaign? One that actually shares authentic feminist values and doesn’t divert attention from the movement for some commercial purpose? 

Yes, we believe those brands (and subsequent campaigns) do exist. However, there’s a caveat: if a brand is advertising with an authentic feminist approach because their brand values do align with the movement, then it’s not a case of femvertising. It’s just feminism.

Does that sound like something you would like to try in your business? Then here’s the quick, 3-step guide to add intersectional feminism to your brand, without piggybacking on the shoulders of the movement.

  1. It all comes down to branding. If you’re just starting out and you’re ready to take a feminist approach to business, don’t forget to incorporate feminist values to your brand guidelines. If you believe that equality, fair compensation, flexibility, hiring internationally, and inclusion are important, incorporate them into your brand message. Don’t wait until you become “someone” to add these values, and don’t be afraid of shaking things up a bit. Customers will always prefer an authentic brand over someone that just wants to maintain an amiable appearance. 
  1. It’s okay to rebrand and start afresh. If your business has lived through a couple of springs, but it’s until now that you’re ready to fully incorporate feminism into your mission, then consider revamping your brand. Don’t be afraid of what people may think. Loyal customers prefer to see an honest statement explaining that you’re no longer willing to stand up to past values, than simply showing up out of the blue as a completely different brand.
  1. Remember: feminism is not a “strategy” for breaking into new markets. If your brand has always served a certain demographic and target audience (like Audi), but you now need/want to expand into new markets, don’t use feminism as a tool to gain social acceptance and brownie points. This is the lazy approach, and when you take it you’re doing more damage than good. 

Wrapping Things Up: Why Femvertising is a no-no.

In the beginning, the term “femvertising” didn’t have a manipulative overtone. It was originally coined in 2014 by the execs of SheKnowsMedia, a flagship brand of SHEMedia, a New York City-based media group, right after the uber-successful Dove’s Real Beauty 2014 campaign.

 However, it soon became associated with any ad that used female-empowerment motifs, no matter if the brand identifies itself as feminist or not. 

Of course, this means that current femvertising trends end up doing more damage than good, both to the brand that “femvertises” and to the “movement” that inspired everything. Faux-feminism, as Katie Martell has also named femvertising, has three ugly side-effects: 

  1. It erases the political aspect of feminism.
  2. It ends up damaging (or destroying) the reputation of the brand that uses it.
  3. It tricks consumers into believing that “being a feminist” means consuming X or Y brands. 

So, what does a femvertising damaging campaign look like? We discussed and analyzed three examples that stand out: Audi’s 2017 Super Bowl Ad, Chanel’s 2014 “Feminist Rally”, and Panam’s 2021 International Women’s Day flop. 

Finally, we provided a 3 step guide to add feminism to your brand in a genuine way, without piggybacking on any movement. These crucial steps are: 

  1. It all comes down to branding.
  2. It’s okay to rebrand and start afresh.
  3. Feminism is not a “strategy” to break into new markets. 

Now it’s your turn! If you want to assess how culturally competent your brand message is, feel free to grab a copy of our Culturally Competent Brand Message Checklist!

Want to work with us to develop a culturally competent brand message and communication strategy? Set up a Clarity Call to learn how we can work together 1:1 to bring cultural competence and intersectional feminism into your marketing strategy.


References:

(1) Source: https://www.femvertisingawards.com/

(2) Taylor Jing Wen, Chang Won Choi, Linwan Wu, Jon D. Morris. (2022) Empowering Emotion: The Driving Force of Share and Purchase Intentions in Viral AdvertisingJournal of Current Issues & Research in Advertising 43:1, pages 47-67.

Neema Varghese, Navin Kumar. (2020) Feminism in advertising: irony or revolution? A critical review of femvertisingFeminist Media Studies 0:0, pages 1-19.

Alan Abitbol & Miglena Sternadori (2019) Championing Women’s Empowerment as a Catalyst for Purchase Intentions: Testing the Mediating Roles of OPRs and Brand Loyalty in the Context of Femvertising, International Journal of Strategic Communication, 13:1, 22-41, DOI: 10.1080/1553118X.2018.1552963

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