When Advertising Attacks Sexist Clichés It Helped To Create

Marketing firms are embracing a strategy called 'femvertising' to challenge the sexist gender molds of the past. Are they pushing equality for equality's sake, or just trying to woo consumers?

'Show her it's a man's world'
"Show her it's a man's world"
Julie Rambal

GENEVA Some may recall an early 90s Audi advert that said, "He has money, power, even an Audi. He'll get the woman." And sure enough, an elegant brunette walking along the street as the luxury sedan drives past gets in the car. The lesson seems to be that men are instinctive hunters when it comes to seduction, and that women sure love money!

Twenty four years later, to coincide with the latest Super Bowl, the same carmaker launched its daughter advert. It shows a girl not yet in her teens participating in a Go-Kart race, and as her soap-box racer catches up with the boys competing with her — determination written on her sweet little face — a voice asks, "What do I tell my daughter? Do I tell her that her grandpa is worth more than her grandma ... that despite her education, her drive, her skills, her intelligence, she will automatically be valued as less than every man she ever meets? Or maybe, I'll be able to tell her something different."

#WomenNotObjects Campaign Photo: Instagram

Breaking clichés

After presenting women as idiots, domestic slaves or orgasmic accessories for men, the advertising industry appears now to be backtracking on sexism. In fact, on June 20, at the industry's big bash at the Cannes Festival of Creativity, some 20 multinational firms backed the "Unstereotype Alliance", a project to stop peddling clichés. Food giant Unilever (Knorr soups, Ben and Jerry's ice creams, etc.) launched the project in partnership with UN Women, the UN agency promoting women's rights. Firms like Procter and Gamble, Microsoft, Google and Facebook among others, have adhered.

Martin Sorrell, head of WPP, the world's largest communication agency, declared at the event that hundreds of millions of people were exposed to ad messages every day, which implied a degree of influence that could be used to strengthen negative stereotypes, or define new autonomy and equality norms. It was a welcome expression of contrition, given certain deplorable, and persistent realities.

A Unilever-sponsored study on women in advertising found that women speak three times less than men in advertising, and are one and half times more likely to be shown in the kitchen. In contrast, only 3% of ads show them as company directors. In the glittering world of ads, kitchenware products remain genetically, "scientifically" female.

Guilt-free moms

It appears now that these long-criticized caricatures are starting to harm business, especially when, the study showed, 40% of women see nothing of themselves in what they see on screen. And so to bring these spenders back into the shopping fold, brands are adopting a new form of communication: "femvertising."

Whatever a woman does, "someone's always judging. Well, not anymore.

The approach is typified in a new, American ad for Yoplait, which attempts to free mothers of guilt by showing a selection of moms — one who is breastfeeding, other bottle feeding, some staying at home to raise the children, others going to work to satisfy their ambitions — who all, nevertheless, have same complaint: That whatever a woman does, "someone's always judging." Well, not anymore.

In 2013, the soap brand Dove began its "Real Beauty" trend, showing women systematically devaluing themselves when speaking of their bodies. It was swiftly followed by "Like a Girl," for Always sanitary pads, which shows the implicit disparagement contained in the expression, "like a girl."

Now, "feminist" ads are even winning prizes, namely the #Femvertising Awards bestowed in the past two years by the U.S. firm sheknows media. A prize winner last September in its social impact category was the no-nonsense #WomenNotObjects campaign, which shows a litany of ways in which women are still degraded sexually to sell all types of things, even hamburgers.

Millennials are shaking up codes and spurning gender-based marketing, with its familiar girly pink and blue for boys.

Even India is getting on board with femvertising, notably with the "Da Da Ding" campaign by Nike sportswear. It shows emancipated sportswomen (though none with cellulite) in a country that retains firmly rooted patriarchal traditions. "Millennials are shaking up codes and spurning gender-based marketing, with its familiar girly pink and blue for boys," says Serge Carreira, a lecturer at Sciences-Po in Paris. "They want to hear about their real lifestyles and aspirations with references that are no longer clichés. Like the male YouTuber Manny Gutierrez doing makeup tutorials for the cosmetics firm Maybelline."

Reversing roles

The "housewife aged under 50" is so outdated now that marketing professionals are dubbing her "chief procurement officer." Because while the Mrs is still the one buying 66% of the toilet paper today, the balance appears to be shifting.

In late April, Indesit household appliances ran an ad denouncing this double work for women who take on 73% of household chores while working as hard as men at the office. Its "Do It Together" ad reverses roles to show men running the household (from making breakfast to washing dishes, ironing clothes and picking up the kids at school), while their wives read the paper or chat on the phone. And both have jobs.

One of the triggers of this new advertising wave was "the misogynist Donald Trump's election" to the U.S. presidency, says Carreira. "It led to an even stronger affirmation of certain values."

There's also a clear effort to integrate men into the discourse of emancipatory slogans. Unilever's new campaign for Axe deodorants, called "Is It Ok?", asks if it is alright for boys to be thin and dislike sports, be virgins, have experiences with other boys, and wear pink. The answer is obviously yes. A departure from standard deodorant ads of the past, showing beautiful plants wilting at the musk emanating from muscled males.

Everything is changing. Even Mattel, the company that makes Barbie, is trying its hand at femvertising. After an ad said in 2015 that girls could become whatever they wanted, it has shown dads playing at dolls with their daughters — which raised a few laughs. Come on: selling dolls with impossible body shapes, then peddling yourself as a feminist? Critics have also pointed out that most of the executives and board members signing onto the Unstereotype Alliance are men. In the advertising world at least, equality works better in theory still than in practice.

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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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