Marketing to women has been a tried-and-true tactic used by American marketers for centuries. While the benefits of designing and selling products to women, for women, appear to be plentiful, capitalizing on an entire gender of consumers leads young women and girls down a path that is feminist in name only.
Brands are often ready to adopt a feminist persona to appeal to women, who make up an powerful sector of the American consumer base. Traditional gender roles have rendered women the primary purchasers of groceries, clothes, and other household products for family needs.
Yet, some marketers still treat women as a niche audience, creating gendered versions of everyday products, from writing utensils to disposable razors. A quick look at some major advertising campaigns from the past years show how marketing can push a product masked under a feminist agenda.
- Big Tobacco: Perhaps one of the longest-running marketing-to-women campaigns, tobacco companies have been advertising cigarettes to women for over 100 years. Nursing@USC’s online Family Nurse Practitioner program created a timeline that shows how tobacco companies branded cigarettes as a symbol of feminist emancipation while highlighting false benefits of smoking, like weight loss and stress management. With slim, light and flavored cigarettes designed to appeal to women and girls with celebrity-sponsored ads, the tobacco industry overpowered public health officials’ attempts to educate women and still sells cigarettes to 15 percent of American women today.
- Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign: The company’s “Real Beauty Sketches” spot became the most-watched video advertisement of all time in 2013. It featured women describing their physical features to forensic sketch artists. The ad was part of Dove’s decade-long “Real Beauty” campaign, and attempted to show that people are their own worst critics, and that they have more to celebrate about their “real beauty” than they realize. However, critics claimed that Dove simply capitalized on women by rendering them “insecure about their insecurities”. Dove went beyond the campaign to partner with youth organizations to prove that they were committed to changing beauty standards for women and girls, yet still received criticism for photoshopping female models in their ads to appeal to the same unrealistic ideas of beauty.
- Swiffer’s Rosie the Riveter: Perhaps the most obvious appropriation of feminism since the American Tobacco Company sponsored Amelia Earhart in the 1920s, Swiffer featured a model dressed like Rosie the Riveter to sell home cleaning products in 2013. The company quickly apologized for the ad, but not before critics took to Twitter over the controversy, citing sexism throughout advertisements for many cleaning companies that repeatedly feature women as the primary users of their products.
Marketing failures like Bic’s Pens “For Her” show us that women are increasingly aware of the superficial ways that brands try to appeal to female consumers — particularly through the unnecessary gendered labeling of would-be unisex products. In the ill-advised 2012 campaign, Bic launched a set of pens in feminine packaging that featured a “thin barrel for a woman’s hand.” Following a storm of criticism on Twitter, Amazon and an entire episode of The Ellen Show, Bic discontinued the line. It’s clear that the internet makes it possible for more women to be educated about the story behind marketing campaigns and the quality of products, but it also serves as a watchdog for companies that are seeking to capitalize off of women as a niche consumer base.
While many women and girls appreciate the exclusivity of products that are made for women, they also deserve to know why and how products are made for them. As long as women are watching with an analytical eye, brands will have to stay authentic through their manufacturing and advertising strategies.
Halah Flynn is the Content and Outreach Manager, Nursing@USC
Nursing@USC is the online FNP program from The Department of Nursing at the University of Southern California. The program prepares family nurse practitioners to treat physical and behavioral health, address social and environmental factors, and lead positive social change.