A new Pantene Philippines commercial highlighting workplace double standards has been making the internet rounds and is being heralded as a powerful breakdown of sexist stereotypes. The video, which depicts how men and women are often perceived differently for the same actions — with negative correlations for powerful women — went viral thanks to an endorsement by Facebook COO and Lean In author Sheryl Sandberg. The ad ends with the tagline "Don't let labels hold you back."
But this message isn't empowering: It's just one more way to get women to buy something. While it highlights and critiques gender inequality, this is still a commercial for a product put out by a billion-dollar global consumer-goods company that is concerned with its bottom line — not women's self-image.
Another company jumping on the empowered-marketing bandwagon is Special K, with its new "Shhhhut Down Fat Talk" campaign. The ad shows a clothing boutique set up with signs and tags displaying "fat talk" from women, like "I have a muffin top" and "cellulite is in my DNA." Shoppers' outraged reactions are followed by their realizations that these are phrases women say daily to themselves.
The message itself is great: Women should ban this negative self-talk, and engage in less body-shaming and in more positive reinforcement. But this is coming from a company that consistently promotes its Special K Challenge to lose up to six pounds in two weeks by replacing two meals a day with a bowl of Special K. Essentially, this means eating cardboard twice a day (akin to not eating at all) along with only one "normal" meal. Promoting healthy self-image while simultaneously promoting an unhealthy diet is hypocritical and dangerous. And, as Jezebel writer Kelly Faircloth puts it, "If it happens to remind women that Special K exists just in time for New Year's resolution season, well, then, everybody's happy, right?"
Dove's Real Beauty campaign, which aims to challenge beauty stereotypes and create a broader definition of beauty, is similarly deceptive. Its "Real Beauty Sketches" video that launched in April (and which was just named viral campaign of the year by Ad Age) depicts an FBI-trained sketch artist drawing women first based on their own description, and then based on a stranger's description. The women find that they look more beautiful when described by the stranger. Dove's message is: "You are more beautiful than you think."
Yes, women are held to impossible beauty standards and are their own worst critics. However, not only does this video lack diversity, but it also reinforces narrow cultural definitions of beauty (like being thin, white and young), as well as the notion that being beautiful is still of utmost importance for women. Oh, and Dove happens to sell beauty products that can help with that. (Not to mention the fact that Dove's parent company, Unilever, makes Axe, which is notorious for its sexist ads.)
These ads seem to present women with positive messaging, but this message is still being sold alongside a product — specifically, one that says "beauty is paramount." It's smart to bury the latter message under one of empowerment, but also far more sinister. These companies are exploiting highly charged topics like equality and body image to sell women products they don't need.
It's nice to see marketing geared towards women that doesn't encourage harassment, like Burt's Bees recent "catcalling" lotion:
Image via Huffington Post
Or reinforce gender stereotypes, like Swiffer's take on Rosie the Riveter:
Image via Huffington Post
Or straight-up insult women's intelligence:
But ads like those from Pantene, Special K, and Dove aren't as progressive as they may seem. Corporations are concerned with their business above all else: If marketing that depicts empowered women is trending enough to help sell products, why not engage with consumers in this way?
A hypocritical message is being sent that tells women: "You are beautiful the way you are, but not so beautiful that you don't need our products." Having shiny hair and no split ends doesn't make you powerful and successful, and eating cereal that tastes like Styrofoam won't help women stop "fat talk." Companies cannot truly promote empowerment while also continuing to sell that which latches onto women's insecurities and reinforces beauty standards.
But hey, at least it's better than this:
Images via PZR Services