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Trend Lightly: Feminism is Not a Commodity

Katie Martell
March 25, 2020

TL;DR – Marketing that panders to women’s history month is pervasive, and has dangerous implications on both the movement and brands. 

The Rise Of Femvertising

A mere 17 days ago, we celebrated International Women's Day, an annual celebration of the role of women in society. Given everything going on in the world, it's not surprising if you forgot that it's still Women's History Month, which for marketers has become a 31-day window of opportunity to launch women-themed content and activations.


Prior to COVID-19, your inbox and social feeds this month likely resembled a virtual women’s march, as thousands of brands participated from Disney to Nissan, Apple to Lenovo.

We have a name for this in the industry: femvertising – advertising using the ideals of feminism.

(Quick reminder: Feminism is the belief that women should have the same rights and opportunities socially, culturally, politically, and economically. If you believe in equality, congratulations, you are a feminist. Welcome to the party.)

As public support for women’s rights reaches a crescendo in the era of #metoo and #timesup, marketers are wise to see this as a powerful business opportunity. 

Femvertising helps to:

  • Build affinity with a dominant consumer segment who drive 70-80% of all consumer purchasing, and are used to a history of advertising that objectifies and degrades them.
  • Meet the demand of consumers, who increasingly expect companies to take a stand on social issues. (6 in 10 won’t purchase if they don’t believe what the company stands for.)
  • Differentiate and earn trust. 42% of buyers don’t know which companies to trust, and when they do, it’s due to shared values

Here’s the problem: Companies are profiting from these ideals while embodying the opposite.

5 Examples of Faux-Feminism

I call this disconnect between perception and reality “faux-feminism.” 

Faux-feminism: When the actions of a brand do not align to the words used in their campaigns. Or, when a campaign is merely lip service, absent of any real contribution to the movement. 

Some examples:

1. Disney

Disney tweeted this uplifting roundup of all the women in its Disney+ programming.  

The company also faces allegations of systemic discrimination against women in a major class-action pay gap case. And, in a recent linguistic review of Disney Princess films, researchers found troubling and sexist communication patterns among these leading ladies.  

2. KPMG

The accounting firm’s spot features glass ceilings breaking, and its sponsorship of a women’s golf tournament. It overshadowed the fact that it was (at the time of the ad running) the subject of a $400 million class-action lawsuit alleging a pattern of gender discrimination, including denying promotions to women and penalizing them for taking maternity leave.

3. State Street Global Advisors

In this March 22, 2017 photo, the Charging Bull and Fearless Girl statues are sit on Lower Broadway in New York.


Fearless Girl, a campaign that made global headlines, was commissioned by SSGA to coincide with a new fund for women-owned / women-run companies and IWD. Meanwhile, State Street agreed to pay $5 million to settle allegations that female and black executives at the firm were paid less than their white, male counterparts.

4. Dove

This Unilever brand launched one of the most celebrated femvertising campaigns over a decade ago. “Campaign for Real Beauty” was even voted the #1 campaign of the 21st century by Advertising Age. Just the buzz about the campaign alone drove 30X more exposure than the paid media space.  

While this campaign was running, another Unilever brand, Axe, ran the iconic yet deeply objectifying “AXE Effect” campaign. 

Same companies, conflicting stories.


Note: In more recent years, Unilever has evolved the advertising for Axe, even addressing the topic of toxic masculinity. As public opinions have shifted, so has the brand.

5. Lean Cuisine

The company’s spot asks: “Can women have it all?” 

Not only is this a seriously flawed question, it’s a topic that a frozen-diet-food-brand is not an appropriate steward of. 

Ever since women entered the modern workforce during and following WW2, there has been an archaic notion that they alone bear the brunt of balancing family and home responsibilities with work demands. “Having it all” is a cliché, sexist, one-sided notion that men are never exposed to.

Look how absurd it is when the script is flipped, via Man Who Has It All:

A picture containing person, man, front, standingDescription automatically generated


(I love the internet.)

What’s worse is that this brand caters to women seeking to lose weight within a skinny-obsessed culture that sustains the $72B weight loss and diet market in the US, and contributes to these unrealistic expectations placed on women.

The impact of pandering

Marketers are saying what consumers want to hear, in order to gain trust. That is textbook pandering. 

As a woman, and a marketer, I am caught between celebrating these campaigns and cringing at the friction they create. On one hand, they are clever, well-produced, and they make our businesses (and our mostly-male boards) a lot of money. 

But, I believe profiting off the women’s rights movement while embodying the opposite is not clever, it’s exploitation.

Here’s three of the biggest dangers to brands pandering:

1. It redefines feminism.
These campaigns are feminist when convenient. This is “feminism” as the answer to the question “how do we sell more products to women?”
Feminism is a real movement built over the course of decades on the backs of thousands of women who have scarified much for the progress that’s been made.
When we accept, share, or celebrate faux-feminist ads, we reduce the real work to be done-- down to a hashtag, a color scheme (SO MUCH PINK) and superficial actions like sharing facts about your female employees or using some kind of girl power trope in a campaign once a year.
Real support looks like this: hiring women at every level of the organization, paying them equally, bias training, representation year-round, strong family leave policies, supplier diversity, inclusive hiring practices, and more. Look at what Diageo did for Women’s History Month and its Jane Walker campaign for a great example.
There is a real and present danger to the fight for equality if we continue to prioritize the expression of virtue over action.

2.  It creates an illusion of progress.
McKinsey found that men are more likely to think the workplace is equitable. Women see a workplace that is less fair, and offers less support. Nearly half of men surveyed believe the pay gap is made up.
This kind of advertising makes things seem far better than they really are. Advertising is not harmless. It does not simply “reflect society” back to us. It actively creates and shapes our perception of normal. This, to me, is the biggest danger. 

We cannot fight a problem we do not see and understand clearly (especially one that half the population doesn’t think exists!)

The real state of working-while-woman looks nothing like these ads:

  • 1 in 3 women (18-34) report being sexually harassed at work.
  • Latinas in the workplace are paid $0.54 for every dollar paid to white men. Black women are paid $0.62. 
  • 1 in 4 women return to work within two weeks of giving birth.
  • Only 22% of C-suite executives are women.

3. It’s contributing to consumer skepticism.
If all brands have the same content during International Women’s Day, does it provide any meaningful differentiation? It’s not novel if everyone is deploying the same heavy-handed pandering. 

Consumers are starting to wake up to this:

In a recent poll, 90% of women think women should be celebrated year-round. 30% know brands advocating for women in ads are “just trying to drive sales.” Another found that over 75% of women studied would walk away from brands they don’t see helping a cause, but would pay more for products that truly support the advancement of women. (Read more in ADWEEK.)

In a world where 96% of consumers don’t trust ads already, driving further hypocrisy will only make matters worse. Trust is the #1 charter for marketers, as no meaningful relationship is built without it. We may be well-intentioned, but we’re making things worse. 

What to do now?

Marketers, ask whether your brand truly should engage in this conversation. The feminist movement is larger, and more important, than any brand campaign. Be aware of the long-term impact to your own brand integrity, and the risks to the movement you’re seeking to co-opt.

Consumers, apply the same scrutiny to the ads you share and celebrate, and which brands you choose to buy from. With social media, we have a massive forum to speak to and about brands. (See Sleeping Giants for one example of consumer activism.) Cancel-culture can be an effective form of activism, especially in a world where we vote with our wallet.

Employees, you can vote with your talent, choosing to work only for companies who align actions to words. Or, create change from within! Take a page from modern day activists within firms. 

If this is going to be our new normal every March, we need new rules of engagement. 

Stop the pandermonium.  

I’m exploring these new rules in Pandermonium, a forthcoming documentary and book. Follow the journey on Twitter or LinkedIn, and by subscribing to my newsletter here. 

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