Nic Hamer discusses capitalism and why it screws us all over.
Even the word is kind of gross. It makes me think of a marketing guy called Corey bobbing about in front of a flipchart in a brightly coloured office. ‘Advertising… Feminism… Feminist advertising! What do we call it guys?’ he shouts at a room of fashionable twenty-somethings sat on bean bags. After six hours of brainstorming they just stick the two words together, as if feminism and advertising go together as well as Kim and Kanye (Kimye) or motors and hotels (motels). The result is ‘femvertising’, a word that is almost onomatopoeic in the way that it describes something that is as gross as it sounds.
Corey would be horrified to hear me say this of course. He thinks that it’s a great idea to give feminism a platform in adverts that present women in an ‘empowering’ way. And for once, I don’t entirely disagree with him. Sport England’s #ThisGirlCan campaign is a brilliant example of femvertising done right. It addresses a genuine feminist issue: the fact that women are much less likely than men to take part in sport in the UK because they fear judgement about their appearance or ability. It also makes some effort to respond to intersectional feminist discourse. We see women of all ages, body types and races participating in sport, including women of colour with natural hair, though the underrepresentation of women with disabilities in the campaign is disappointing. Most significantly, it isn’t trying to appear progressive in order to sell us something. There’s no secret ulterior motive. The end goal of Sport England’s advert is to encourage more women to take part in sport. That is all.
The same cannot be said for many of the brands making use of femvertising: their end goal is not to spread a feminist message, but rather to make a massive pile of money for the company. The most obvious instance of this that we’ve seen recently might be Kendall Jenner’s star turn in a Pepsi advert, which infamously used the imagery of the Black Lives Matter movement to try and sell everyone’s second favourite brand of cola. Of course, this isn’t really an example of femvertising as much as an example of civil-rights-vertising. What it shows is that advertisers think it’s acceptable to co-opt our social movements without exploring their complexities, or in this case even their simplicities, in order to sell us stuff we don’t need.
A more controversial example of this phenomenon at its worst might be L’Oréal’s advertising campaign for True Match foundation, released last August. The point of this product was that it was available in a wide range of skin tones, meaning that people of colour could finally buy a foundation that matched the colour of their skin. Because makeup is most often worn by those that identify as women, L’Oréal were essentially addressing an intersectional feminist issue by selling this product. They played this up significantly in their marketing strategy by hiring Munroe Bergdorf – a black, transgender, feminist activist – as an ambassador for their brand.
L’Oréal’s treatment of this woman demonstrated how little interest they actually had in promoting intersectional feminism. On the 31st of August this year, Bergdorf was dropped from the campaign for being ‘racist against white people’. Her transgression? She posted a response to the Charlottesville protests on Facebook about how ‘the existence, privilege and success [of white people] is built on the backs, blood and death of people of colour’. ‘Once white people begin to admit their race is the most violent and oppressive force of nature on Earth’, she wrote, ‘we can talk.’ As uncomfortable as this kind of thing is to read if you’re white, it’s the kind of conversation starter that we all need if we want to become better feminists and better people.
The true irony of this case is that Bergdorf was fired by L’Oréal for the same reason that she was hired: she’s an inspirational, fearless activist. If L’Oréal were genuinely interested in intersectional feminism, as the marketing for their True Match collection implied, then they should have stood by Bergdorf or at least engaged with her piece in a meaningful way. They should have accepted the resulting fall in sales. I am struggling to think of something more cringe-inducing than watching a group of white people tell a black woman that she’s racist. L’Oréal’s conduct towards Bergdorf shows that they only participate in activism that is conservative enough to avoid controversy. Their feminist branding is about PR, profit and nothing more.
Unfortunately, these accusations could be levelled at most companies that use femvertising. A need to make money and maintain a good public image can only be in conflict with the kind of conversation or actions that are required to shake society into changing. Advertisers need to stop claiming to be activists. If they want feminists to buy their products, then they should focus on presenting marginalised genders and groups in a respectful and representative way.
Illustration by Isabel Kilborn.