2014: The Year Advertisers Broke ‘Feminism’?

Sure.
Sure. –Francois Mori/AP

This week, Time Magazine proposed a ban of the word “feminist.’’

It was on a list along with “bae,’’ “kale,’’ and “literally,’’ like a culturally appropriated vocabulary word that has been overused, abused, and exhausted to the point of losing all proper meaning. And even worse, it’s winning! By a LANDSLIDE! More people would rather ban “feminist’’ than “yaasssss’’ and “turnt.’’

True, an online poll only has as much power as its readers give it, but it’s hard not to wonder how “feminist’’ wound up on Time’s list in the first place.

Women’s rights have had quite the year. I’ll be honest, though: Writing that sentence makes me pause, re-read, scrutinize, and re-phrase and re-form its words in my mind in an attempt to root out any trace of thinly veiled misogyny. A writer having heightened awareness of what words actually mean is good for many reasons, don’t get me wrong. But this search for something wrong could be viewed as a potential weak spot—which is catnip for marketers.

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If I could ban a word this year, it would be “blessed.’’ Two words? Bye-bye, “empower.’’

“But ‘empower,’’’ you say, “is a great word! It allows us to feel good about the things we’ve forgotten to feel good about. It gives hope, makes us brave!’’

Advertisers and brands have joined in, indulging in “empowerment marketing’’ —emphasizing the things that make consumers feel good about themselves—as opposed to “inadequacy marketing,’’ which preys on insecurities.

In 2014, though, the onslaught of “empowerment marketing’’ made it feel like feminist tenets were being used to sow the seeds of inadequacy.

This is the time of Girls Who Code, Emma Sulkowicz, He For She, Mo’ne Davis, and Karl Lagerfeld’s misguided-slash-awe-inspiring protest-themed Chanel show. Emma Watson, Beyoncé, Lena Dunham, Olivia Wilde, even Aziz Ansari—all are feminists and proud of it. Reproductive rights, campus rape and assult issues, gender divide and imbalances in male-centric industries like science and tech have been topics of discussion this year, and awareness of them may give Hillary Clinton that extra-extra in 2016.

But capitalizing on this particular hot topic is a curiously compelling sell for brands targeting women. Playing on consumers’ insecurities is a tried-and-true trick of advertising agencies, and feminism in 2014 is a perfect storm.

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The advertisers that even recently have made female consumers question whether they shave often enough, play on their self-doubt, or drum up anxieties over the relationship between white yoga pants and one’s menstrual cycle are now making those same women say, “We stand alongside you, and we’ll buy your product.’’

AdAge credited the current “Go-Girl Marketing’’ trend to the rising influence of social media, listing Verizon’s “Inspire Her Mind’’ and Pantene’s “Not Sorry’’ campaigns as examples of success. Women in Media and News founder Jennifer Pozner told them, “Some [advertisers] have wised up and said … ‘If we create ad platforms that treat women and girls as if they’re fully human, we can turn them into brand loyalists.’’’ However, they note the push for female-empowerment campaigns doesn’t necessarily translate to a full embrace of the word “feminist.’’

Why?

Well:

“Twenty-six percent of consumers consider calling someone a feminist to be an insult, while just 14% consider it to be a compliment, according to a July YouGov Poll. Only one in four consumers considers themselves feminist, yet when the word is defined for them as someone who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes, the figure jumps to 60%, according to the YouGov poll.’’

Perhaps this year’s embrace of “go-girl marketing’’ is just part of a generational cycle. Earlier this year, the Atlantic explored “The Death of the Cool Feminist Smoker,’’ a retrospective of cigarette companies’ misguided use of pop-feminist rhetoric to shill product. Brands like Virginia Slims used slogans like “You’ve come a long way, baby’’ to “empower’’ the newly liberated, but they saw a backlash once the public turned against tobacco. (The PSA that flatly stated, “Nobody Wants to Kiss an Ashtray’’ was particularly successful at flipping the confidence boost on its head.)

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Granted, cigarettes are a long way from shampoo and tampons. But by tying a particular philosophy to a consumer good, it may become easier for people to throw both in the trash.

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