For years, the advertising industry has been criticised for its tendency to objectify women and reproduce damaging gender stereotypes. A review by the UK’s Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) suggested that harmful stereotypes in advertising limit people’s aspirations and opportunities and play a signifiant role in maintaining gender inequality. However, in recent years there has been a wave of advertisements containing uplifting and empowering messages about women. In the contemporary era, women have higher levels of purchasing power and companies are striving to appeal to female consumers. Furthermore, in the context of #MeToo and #TimesUp and a renewed enthusiasm for gender equality, companies are keen to market themselves as allies of the feminist movement through a phenomenon known as ‘femvertising’.
SheKnows Media defines femvertising as ‘advertising that employs pro-female talent, messages and imagery to empower women and girls’. Examples include campaigns such as Always’ ‘Like A Girl', Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ and Pantene’s ‘Shine Strong’.
These campaigns have been highly successful and these brands have been celebrated for their empowering messages. Dove has reported multi-billion dollar profits since starting its femvertising campaigns, demonstrating how these campaigns also drive sales.
Studies have shown a strong correlation between femvertising and positive attitudes towards brands, that also serve as a predictor of buying decisions. For example, a 2017 study by Drake found that women exposed to femvertising had more positive attitudes towards the ads and brands as well as higher purchase intentions. A survey conducted by SheKnows Media similarly found that 52% of women specifically bought a company’s product because they liked the way they represented women in their advertising and 46% followed a company on social media for similar reasons.
Increasingly, consumers evaluate a company’s social impact before making a purchase decision. According to research conducted by the Haas School of Business at Berkeley, more than 9/10 millennial consumers would switch to a brand associated with a progressive social cause. It therefore comes as no surprise that more ethical companies are performing better financially, as demonstrated by global rankings published by the Ethisphere Institute.
Femvertising helps brands appear ethically conscious and drives sales, whilst promoting positive and empowering messages about women. So, what’s the problem?
Katie Martell questions whether femvertising is a form of ‘faux-feminism’ and exploits rather than promotes the struggle for gender equality. Though pro-women adverts help to promote empowering narratives and diversify representations of women in the media, she suggests that they are ‘too frequently only deployed as lip service by companies who exhibit less than ideal behaviour internally’.
Many companies that use femvertising fail to practice what they preach when it comes to gender equality within their own organisation. For example, in 2015 a well known professional services firm released a video called ‘Glass Ceiling: Continuing our commitment to the next generation of women leaders’, but in August 2018 the company was hit with a $400 million class-action lawsuit that claimed it was responsible for a number of discriminatory practices, including not promoting women and penalising employees for taking maternity leave.
Similarly, in 2017 Audi positioned itself as a champion of gender equality in its ‘Daughter’ Super Bowl commercial. However, at the time only 2 out of 14 of the company’s executives were women and it had no women on its management board.
Furthermore, the ‘Fearless Girl’ campaign, intended to spark conversations about gender diversity in corporate leadership, was commissioned by a well known US based financial firm, whose board of directors is 73% male and who recently agreed to a $5 million settlement over allegations that it pays hundreds of female employees less than their male counterparts.
Clearly, there is a need to go beyond femvertising and commit to real change. Katie Martell has designed a ‘femvertising litmus test’ which can be used to examine whether a company is genuinely championing gender equality by comparing their adverts to their internal business practices.
If a company is profiting from ideals of gender equality, they must not embody the opposite in their own internal practices. Ultimately, companies must go beyond femvertising and live up to their own feminist ideals. This means committing to equal pay for equal work, having women and other underrepresented groups in positions of leadership, adopting inclusive hiring practices, providing substantial maternity and paternity leave, making unconscious bias training available to employees and creating an inclusive company culture. In order for femvertising to be genuine rather than exploitative, the advertisement in question must reflect a broader, sustained effort by the company to achieve gender equality and higher levels of diversity and inclusion within its own organisation.
WERKIN works to help companies that are committed to making themselves more inclusive, diverse and gender equal. How? Through Modern Mentorship. WERKIN’s Modern Mentorship is a tech-enabled platform that uses algorithms to match employees with roles based on their interests, experience and skillset. This raises the visibility of underrepresented talent and helps companies become more diverse and equal by reducing unconscious bias, as the skills of employees are identified using impartial technology rather than human instinct. WERKIN’s technology also helps companies build their mentorship and sponsorship programmes which helps them develop and retain diverse talent.
Femvertising is a phenomenon that is gaining momentum and is likely to increase as brands strive to appeal to female consumers and market themselves as more socially responsible. However, a company’s commitment to gender equality in their advertising must be reflected in their internal business practices. Using technology such as that provided by WERKIN enables companies to practice what they preach and truly work towards creating a more diverse and equal society.