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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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Look At This Crap! The "Enshittification" Theory Of Why The Internet Is Broken

The term was coined by journalist Cory Doctorow to explain the fatal drift of major Internet platforms: if they were ever useful and user-friendly, they will inevitably end up being odious.

A photo of hands holding onto a smartphone

A person holding their smartphone

Gilles Lambert/ZUMA
Manuel Ligero


The universe tends toward chaos. Ultimately, everything degenerates. These immutable laws are even more true of the Internet.

In the case of media platforms, everything you once thought was a good service will, sooner or later, disgust you. This trend has been given a name: enshittification. The term was coined by Canadian blogger and journalist Cory Doctorow to explain the inevitable drift of technological giants toward... well.

The explanation is in line with the most basic tenets of Marxism. All digital companies have investors (essentially the bourgeoisie, people who don't perform any work and take the lion's share of the profits), and these investors want to see the percentage of their gains grow year after year. This pushes companies to make decisions that affect the service they provide to their customers. Although they don't do it unwillingly, quite the opposite.

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Annoying customers is just another part of the business plan. Look at Netflix, for example. The streaming giant has long been riddling how to monetize shared Netflix accounts. Option 1: adding a premium option to its regular price. Next, it asked for verification through text messages. After that, it considered raising the total subscription price. It also mulled adding advertising to the mix, and so on. These endless maneuvers irritated its audience, even as the company has been unable to decide which way it wants to go. So, slowly but surely, we see it drifting toward enshittification.

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