It was 2006. I was twelve. My body was changing and, thanks to an obsessive consumption of CosmoGirl and Seventeen magazines, I was just beginning to learn how to hate my curves, stretch marks, and cellulite. Dove had just released an ad called Evolution as a part of its Real Beauty campaign in 2006. It went viral, offering a one minute twenty second peek into the model and advertising world. The video began with a woman, sitting down, facing the camera. She is very beautiful, but not “magazine beautiful.” Her skin has some “flaws,” she’s not wearing makeup, and her hair is not perfectly blown out. Then the video begins fast-forwarding. We see her change before our eyes as makeup and hair product is applied. Pictures are taken. She looks stunning. But then, Photoshop comes in. A mouse adjusts her neck here, her lips there, her eyes nose, and jaw, resulting in a completely different woman from the beginning of the ad. The screen reads “No wonder our perception of beauty is distorted.”
This marked the first time I realized that the models I looked at in magazines were not even real. In everyday life, even those models didn’t look like the women in the advertisements—they were completely altered.
The beauty industry used to point out flaws, showing women what they needed to fix in order to sell them a solution. Since Dove’s Evolution, which won a number of prestigious awards, advertising has come a long way. I’m not naive. I know that there are still brands out there that prey on insecurities in order to sell skinny teas or a miracle cream. However, it seems that there are also a lot more that are championing women and the things we used to see as flaws.
Often when I see a feminist, women-focused advertisement, I wonder—how much of this is an authentic effort designed to empower women, and how much is a catchy, convenient marketing ploy?
I did some research on prominent brands with a female-first narrative. While weeding through advertisements upon advertisements in order to answer my inquiry of authenticity, another question kept nagging at me. Whether an ad is a marketing ploy or genuine—does it even matter?
There is a word for these types of ads: femvertising. Coined by Adweek in 2014, femvertising refers to brands that are “challenging gender norms by building stereotype-busting, pro-female messages and images into ads that target women.”
It’s not surprising that brands want to capitalize on femvertising. Harvard Business Review reports that consumers with an emotional connection to a brand are twice as valuable than highly satisfied customers.
In my opinion, it can be easier for a legacy brand to fall flat as opposed to an agile, newer brand. Since the success of Evolution, Dove has received backlash for numerous advertisements, the most recent being in 2017, when the skincare company dropped an ad that was dubbed racist. In a three-second GIF, the ad featured three women, each removing a shirt and turning into another. The transition, advertising body wash, was from a black woman to a white woman. The ad was clearly problematic, and Dove immediately apologized, responding that the ad “was intended to convey that Dove Body Wash is for every woman and be a celebration of diversity, but we got it wrong and, as a result, offended many people.”
However, there have been other legacy brands that nailed the narrative. For their fall line, H&M released a video advertisement set to the song “She’s a Lady” that featured a diverse group of women and gender identities—some with body hair, some with a buzz cut, some thin, some fat, some short, some tall. The ad gives a clear, empowering message—there is no one way to be a “lady.”
Newer brands tend to lean further on the femvertising spectrum. This could be due to their ability to take more risks. Take subscription razor brand Billie, for example. The female-focused razor brand recently released an ad set to “TomBoy” by Princess Nokia. The video showed women displaying body hair from head to toe (literally). The end screen reads, in millennial pink, mind you: “However, whenever, if ever, you want to shave, we’ll be here.”
I started out torn on femvertising. On the one hand, I don’t want to support the monetization of an important societal movement. On the other, if little girls are seeing these ads, does it matter if this is simply a marketing tool? In the end, I don’t think it does—as long as these brands are promoting a true feminist message and not some underlying, internalized misogynist narrative.
Photo: rahmani KRESNA via Unsplash