feminism is not your bandwagon (or: ads that make me cry also make me uncomfortable)

Growing up, I was in love with advertising. No cable meant that, oftentimes, the best thing on TV were the commercials. Sunday mornings and sick days spent on the couch were prime times for catching up on the world of consumerism. I’d spend entire mornings watching infomercials, imagining what life would be like if my family had a blender that could blend roof shingles, or a special pan that doubled as a panini press. Pretty much everything I know about classic rock has come from the ten-second clips of concerts they’d play on those hour-long ads for CD box sets. While most kids were memorizing Pokemon stats and *NSYNC lyrics, I was memorizing prescription drug names and fast food jingles.

Some of my fondest childhood memories are of evenings spent with my little brother after school, flipping channels to get to the commercial breaks. We’d make a game of it. Sometimes we’d play The Price is Right, trying to guess the number and price of payment installments for an item, or the value of the special gift that you’d get if you’d call in the next 12 hours. We’d keep a running tally of who could name each brand before the logo or tagline appeared on the screen. We were pretty good at it, too. We were like little Tai Fraisers, singing along to the Mentos commercial in Clueless. We knew that Lunesta moth like we knew the Cialis bathtubs.

I stopped watching commercials for fun when I moved out of my parents house. I haven’t owned a television since, and most online streaming services have either eliminated advertising or offer an option to skip them after a mere few seconds. When I do turn on a TV, I barely register the ads. I’m usually vaguely shocked when I discover that what I knew as a fibromyalgia treatment is now used as an asthma drug, but otherwise I’m more focused on where my show left off. Still, every once in a while, a commercial will cross my path that completely diverts my attention. These are usually posted by a friend on social media or mixed in with movie trailers before the feature film. More often than not, they’re pushing some form of “female empowerment.”


#LikeAGirl by Always

Recently, I was sitting alone in a dark theater, waiting with a greasy bag of popcorn for the previews to start so I could see Moana. The lights dimmed, the “silence your cell phones” message faded to black, and then it happened. The ad opened with a flood of daylight and the pounding of pink sneakers on pavement. As the camera zoomed out, it captured women putting their bodies to work, running up and down streets, jumping rope, punching stuff. The constant beat of footsteps set the rhythm for a female voice, reciting a poem of strength. The overall message, “I am woman; hear me roar,” was impossible to miss.

By the end of the 60-second spot, my mascara was already running.

Campaign for Real Beauty

Real Beauty by Dove

This was not the first time an advertisement had made me cry, nor would it be the last. Dove, with their commercials featuring women feeling confident in their bodies, has brought me to tears for over a decade. Those Pampers commercials about motherhood around the world are worse than onions, and the Like A Girl campaign by Always just plain squeezes my heart to the point of bursting. A few years ago, Pantene released an ad in Korea about perceived female bossiness that required at least a dozen tissues. The list is infinite.

Besides making me snot all over my shirt sleeves, all of these commercials lit a fire in my belly. They made me want to stand up, and cry out, and put my foot down, and… and… and… and… and what?

Buy stuff?

That’s when I realized that commercials that make me cry also make me uncomfortable.

Never underestimate the power of woman, says another ad. But that power was, and is, underestimated in America. Or, rather, it is only estimated in terms that can be manipulated at the point of purchase

– Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique

I came across this quote yesterday as I was finishing a chapter in Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique on the role of advertising in pushing young women towards suburban housewifery. The chapter, called “The Sexual Sell,” features numerous interviews with advertising consultants about the process of identifying the struggles and afflictions of American women, and how they spun brands as panaceas for the “problem that has no name.”

Ironically, advertisers seemed generally to recognize that women’s emptiness had to do with the boredom and meaningless of housework; yet, instead of imagining a world where a woman could be more than a wife and mother, they concocted a narrative in which housewife was the most honorable, most creative role a woman need ever fill. This new cleaning product makes mom a scientist, picking new wallpaper makes her an artist, working a fancy, electric appliance makes her an engineer… The more glamour that was attached to a housewife’s role, the more hollow women felt at home…and the emptier a woman felt, the more likely she was to buy silverware or baking mix or a new sofa to satisfy the innate human need to create.

(As an added layer, the ads were also spun to capitalize on a woman’s guilt, making the product about the good of the family, so that women need not feel selfish for buying a thing to fill the void…)


A Man’s a Boss, A Woman is Bossy by Pantene

As I finished the chapter, I began thinking about all those advertisements that have made me cry. We’ve certainly come a long way from the 1950s, but is advertising a different game? What are these companies saying when they tell me to stop apologizing, when they tell me to love the skin I’m in? Is the message about my confidence or selling a product? Has feminism finally won over advertising? Or has advertising hijacked the female empowerment bandwagon as a way to, again, make consumerism a point of superficial prestige in a society that has, in many ways, moved beyond the feminine mystique of an earlier age?

If I want to love my body, will buying a certain brand of soap make that easier, or will it simply fill a fleeting role in sating my psyche? Once the soap is gone, will I have changed, or will I need to buy more to prove that I am as empowered and body positive as I want myself to be?

Do these commercials solve anything or are they a part of the problem?


Always a Bridesmaid by Listerine

I don’t know the answers to these questions. For every Miki Agrawal there is also a Janet Champ. All I know for sure is that advertisements are, at the most basic, atomic level, about pushing a product. Shinier hair alone won’t change the discrimination women face at work. Buying stuff isn’t the only way to feel empowered or to show yourself love. But I also know that advertisements are powerful vehicles of societal messages, and it’s likely a good shift that so many companies are chasing down the bandwagon. So, I suppose I’ll just have to go on crying with a critical eye when tampons tell me to love my period and sneakers tell me I’m a goddess.

I suppose I can live with that.


3 thoughts on “feminism is not your bandwagon (or: ads that make me cry also make me uncomfortable)

  1. “…more than a wife or mother…”
    Why do we feel the need to exalt one vocation over another as “more”? I chose to be a lawyer. My wife chose to be a stay at home mom. Was my job “more” than hers? No way. I will not go to my grave wishing I had spent more time in court, but I envy the time my wife spent with our children when they were young. Certainly, if a woman wants to be a lawyer, she should not be shamed into being a housewife, but, likewise, if a woman chooses to be a housewife, she should not be shamed into being a lawyer. Sadly my wife often felt such shame from those who felt that she could be “more” than her chosen occupation.

    • Okay, so first of all, I want to address the issue of shame, because that’s true on both sides. You say your wife felt outside pressure to take an occupation other than being a stay at home mom. I’ve spoken to other women of her generation that did just that, and felt immense pressure to go back to homemaking. Shame is, unfortunately, a consistent input in most women’s lives, regardless of their decisions. Guilt is an excellent motivator, and an emotional sell. See this satirical video about ads for women versus ads for men: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VD6z64aov3o

      (Side note: I know there is an issue of shame and a cult of masculinity embedded in advertising for men, but that’s not where I want to take this right now.)

      That said, the experience of wives and mothers of later generations is not the same as that of a housewife in the era of the feminine mystique. What you are saying, that a woman who wants to be a lawyer should be free to be a lawyer, was unimaginable then. That choice was not presented on the table. Every societal input–magazines, advertisements, lessons in school–told women they had one job, and that was to be a wife and mother. That was the end of things…no personality, no hobbies, nothing outside the family. It was unimaginable even for a woman to hold a leadership role in the PTA–membership was expected, but leadership was for men. I could go on, but I’m assuming you know the drill.

      Using “more than” may have been a poor choice of diction. A better phrase may have been “something other than.” However, I stand by my description of advertisements of that era as producing a myopic, empty vision of women’s potential.

      • We study marketing a little in the Business Ethics class I teach. Originally, advertising just met people where they were, letting them know about the availability of a product they might already be interested in. To some extent, advertisers still need to meet people where they are. So, marketers tend to target the people who already buy their type of products — e.g., skin products or laundry detergent being advertised to women, etc. This all changed with the industrial revolution. With that revolution came the ability to produce more products than people needed or wanted to buy. This overproduction pushed prices down. Manufacturers had to choose one of two options; reduce production or find a way to increase demand. They (naturally) chose the latter, and marketing was born that was geared toward creating demand that didn’t already exist. So, now we have diamond producers telling men to spend two months salary on an engagement ring. Razor blade manufacturers suggested that men start shaving every day at a time when they weren’t doing so. Shampoo producers told us to “wash, rinse, repeat.” Underwear makers told us to change our undies every day (okay, I won’t argue against that one). By encouraging new habits — even through guilt — marketers increased demand. Now, as I said before, they focus on the brand more than the product. Make you feel good about their brand, and you’ll buy their stuff.

        The master ad campaign for branding was the legendary Marlboro campaign. Prior to the 50s, Marlboro cigarettes were marketed to women, with a feminine script logo, a slogan of “Mild as May,” and ivory filters that were designed to resist lipstick stains. Then Phillip Morris concluded men would spend more money on cigarettes than women, and so they changed things up with the introduction of the Marlboro Man campaign. They combined it with a new flip-top box and a western slab serif font logo. Their commercials said nothing about cigarettes; they only showed a rugged man smoking at the end of a long day of roping cows. Sales to men skyrocketed and it became the most successful advertising campaign in history. I think the fact that several Marlboro men died from lung cancer only added to the masculine mystique of the brand.

        And, yes, sad to say, shame and guilt are powerful motivators. They are universal emotions for the human condition and gender neutral. Most people I know, of either gender, walk around in some level of perpetual feelings of guilt and/or shame. In my experience, I’ve learned I can’t focus on the bahavior of others in dealing with my own feelings of shame and guilt. I can’t prevent others from trying to shame me into a given behavior. Rather, I deal with my feelings internally, just me and God who loves me regardless, and let others do as they wish.

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