When Feminism Became a Marketing Technique

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.

UN Experts Call for Action on Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes

Breastfeeding is recognized as a human rights issue for both mothers and babies, and those who wish to breastfeed their children have the right to unbiased and accurate information to be able to make informed choices.

There are numerous barriers facing women worldwide in regards of optimal breastfeeding. Inappropriate and varying knowledge and skills among healthcare workers, non-existent maternity leave and non-supportive cultural practices are only a few that affect and hinder women who wish to breastfeed.

On November 22nd, a joint statement by a group of UN experts was released to urge action on one major obstacle: the marketing of breastmilk substitutes, also known as formula. Together, they call upon Member States to implement legal measures to protect babies and mothers from misleading, and often aggressive marketing.

Let’s have a look at some facts:

  • Global sales of breast-milk substitutes total US$ 44.8 billion
  • In 2019, the number is expected to rise to US$ 70.6 billion
  • Of 194 countries analyzed, 135 have some form of legal measure in place related to the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (also known as the Code)
  • However, only 39 countries have laws that enact all provisions of the Code

As one can see, the breastmilk substitute industry is a highly profitable and rapidly growing one, which makes it even more important to establish proper and well-monitored legal frameworks in all States. The UN experts highlight that aggressive and unethical marketing is especially harmful when it’s targeting mothers in developing countries – the most vulnerable of mothers anywhere.

Since the 1970’s, when Nestlé was first accused of misleading marketing of baby foods to new mothers in the Global South (e.g. by giving out “goodie bags” with free samples of formula, and having representatives of the company wearing nurse’s uniforms and pushing formula), the industry has been subjected to harsh criticism.

The criticism continues, and the UN experts remind States of the duties which they are bound to respect and comply with:

We remind States of their obligations under relevant international human rights treaties to provide all necessary support and protection to mothers and their infants and young children to facilitate optimal feeding practices.  States should take all necessary measures to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding, and end the inappropriate promotion of breast-milk substitutes and other foods intended for infants and young children up to the age of 3 years.”

Due to the lack of progress made in the adoption of valid measures to eliminate harmful marketing towards women, the experts highlight the need to hold businesses accountable for the adverse consequences of such marketing practices, and make sure not to “blame the victim” – in this case, mothers.

I like to believe that – worldwide and generally – women want what’s best for their children. Whether or not they decide to breastfeed, proper support and protection need to be available to them, so that they can make informed decisions. The experts alert that women who do not want to, or are not able to breastfeed must not be judged or condemned:

“[I]n cases where a woman cannot breastfeed or is not willing to do so, even after having been duly informed about the benefits of breastfeeding, access to good quality breastmilk substitutes should be regulated and affordable.”

The criticism of the under-regulation of the multi-billion dollar baby milk industry is valid, and the marketing practices used negatively affect women in their choices about how the feed their children. In order to reach the 2025 Global Targets of  increasing the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the first 6 months to at least 50%, countries need to take more action to protect, promote and support breastfeeding as a human right.

The joint statement was issued by the UN Special Rapporteurs on the Right to Food and the Right to Health, the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women in Law and in Practice, and the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child.

The Thin Line Between Violence and Art

When it comes to sexualisation in the media, often people respond with – “sex sells.” Although sex may sell, I often wonder at what cost? Who is footing the bill? The answer: everyone.

Sexual exploitation in advertisements affects the whole of society in one way or another.

However, women bear most of the costs and, as a result, our mental health and well-being suffers. Although much has been said on the sexualisation of women and girls in the media, sexual violence, particularly in fashion advertising, must be addressed.

In 2007, Dolce and Gabbana (D&G) published the advert below:

Image Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com
Image Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com

Many women’s rights groups and advertising watchdogs have argued that the advertisement above clearly symbolises gang-rape. Held down against her will, the woman in the image falls victim to her male oppressor while an additional three men look on eagerly, seemingly awaiting their turn. Gang-rape is a horrifying and grotesque human rights violation from which no one should ever have to suffer. Why then, is it perfectly acceptable to normalise gang rape and use it as a concept in advertisements and marketing campaigns? In response to the global public outrage, D&G withdrew the advertisement from all its publications. However, D&G insisted the image was not meant to be controversial but simply represented an erotic dream.

The fashion industry continues to push the boundaries of what is new, edgy and original. Some argue that fashion advertising is art and therefore should not be taken literally, yet I beg to differ. Take this 2012 winter collection titled ‘Shameless’ from the Dutch company Suit Supply:

Image Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com
Image Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com

The advertisements above suggest that, by buying a Suit Supply suit, women will allow men to do whatever they desire, including sex, touching and groping and peering at our vagina’s. Suit Supply’s advertisements not only represent women as sexual slaves, but also imply that men buy suits to enhance their sexual appeal solely to women, thereby ignoring the entire homosexual population.

Some advertisements are ridiculous, stupid and extremely offensive, others are indescribable:

last image
Image Courtesy of Buzzfeed.com

Considered ‘fine art’ by the fashion world, marketing executives marvelled at the degrading advertisements.

Studies show that such violent images negatively impact adolescents’ self-esteem and confidence. The continuous bombardment of violent  images on television, magazines and the internet reinforce negative gender stereotypes and normalise violence and the sexual exploitation of women and girls.

Whether deemed fine art or fashion, it is wrong and unacceptable.