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These Grrrls Can! Trends in 'feminist' advertising

These Grrrls Can! Trends in 'feminist' advertising
Campaigns with a feminist message have captured media headlines and a series of awards. IPA Effectiveness Editor Carlos Grande looks at some of the approaches taken by brands in this area.

The word “feminist” appears in only five of the 1,200-plus cases amassed in the IPA Effectiveness Awards Databank over more than 30 years, and a mere once in any paper from the current decade.  

But with campaigns such as #LikeAGirl (for P&G’s Always), which recently won a North American Effie, and #ThisGirlCan (for Sport England) sparking mainstream and social media debate about a wave of feminist-inspired advertising, and the impending award of the first Cannes Glass Lion to recognise work addressing “gender equality or prejudice”, there has arguably never been a better time to broach this subject.

This autumn’s launch of the next IPA Effectiveness Awards, which will include a new prize for campaigns creating societal as well as commercial value, provides the ideal opportunity for those who believe brands can benefit commercially by questioning, rather than reinforcing, stereotypical or negative views of women to start collecting bullet-proof evidence of this in action.

Below, I have listed a few trends in the emerging genre dubbed ‘fem-vertising’. To avoid writing a whole article just on what counts as ‘fem-vertising’, I have used a working definition of any advertisement that challenges gender stereotypes or inequality, or celebrates female potential and achievement.

The list includes campaigns that have won effectiveness prizes round the world, so their creators have already embarked on the process of collecting the rigorous proof needed for an IPA Effectiveness Award entry. 

Do feel free to expand and/or challenge the list with your own views and examples, including – please! – more instances produced by female-led creative teams which are in the minority, even in this genre.


  1. Go, girl!

There is the empowerment narrative in which a female figure overcomes adversity in the form of pre-conceptions about what she can and cannot achieve. 

Examples include the Mo’ne Davis: I Throw like a girl spot created by film director Spike Lee for Chevrolet and the Effie-winning I will what I want campaign starring American ballet dancer, Misty Copeland, advertising sportswear brand, Under Armour (below).

With its upbeat story arc of the lone protagonist realising her potential against the odds, and the preference for creative elements such as voiceovers and swelling music, this approach seems prototypical American.  It also tends to feature extraordinary athletes, elite performers and other over-achievers more than it does everyday women.  

Compare the inclusive diversity of female groups and activities featured in #ThisGirlCan by Sport England, with its sense that anyone can get involved. Indeed, you could argue that its implicit message of 'enjoy exercising and don't care what other people think' is not even exclusively feminist but could also apply to other groups, such as overweight men or the elderly, who might be inhibited from participating in sport by fear that they don't conform to an idealised image of the body beautiful.


  1. Bring out your daughters

Promoting aspiration in young girls – and criticising preconceptions that limit their future career horizons – might seem like the safest way to drop the f-word (feminism) into a brand strategy.

Perhaps that explains why large corporates such as Verizon (Inspire her mind), GE (Childlike Imagination) and Google (Made with Code) have gone down this route.

Broadly sharing the message that young girls should be encouraged to think of all careers, including those in science, technology and engineering, as open to them, these ads have the air of a future-proofing recruitment drive for sectors which have traditionally missed (and missed out on) female talent.  

Toy-maker Goldiblox has a more immediate self-interest: to create future generations of female engineers by selling them building-centric toys when they are young.  At least this Princess Machine spot (below) makes its sales pitch with humour. 

Anyone who considers the above approach without risks, however, should read some of the comments to the Princess Machine video on YouTube, and think again.


  1. Sass and the Settee

Specifically female categories, such as sanitary products, are not habitually associated with humour. Or at least all those heavily-used metaphors of rollerblading/sky-diving/stopped clocks were not intended as funny.

And campaigns from U by Kotex and Hello Flo can claim to have addressed subjects that brands have often tip-toed around, as well as playing them for laughs.

Save the Undies’ from U by Kotex (another North American Effie winner) features a spoof military operation to protect underwear from the effects of periods.

Hello Flo’s Camp Gyno ad for a ‘period starter kit’ is based on the idea that a pubescent girl who begins menstruating may win prestige, if she starts her period before her friends.

The brand followed this with First Moon Party, (below), in which a girl pretends to have started her period, but her mother – who isn’t fooled or impressed by her daughter's new attitude – turns this into an embarrassing public festivity.

Both Hello Flo spots have been viral hits. But it could be said that the later spot divides its sympathies between the girl and the mother. You decide.


  1. The feminist flip

Another strand of ads make their points by subverting or reversing stereotypical expectations of female and male behaviour.

Hair care brand Pantene’s Labels against women film won praise from Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook Chief Operating Officer and author of ‘Lean In’, a call for “fresh thinking” to address gender imbalances in the workplace and homes.

Originating in the Philippines, the Labels campaign posits that the same behaviour can be labelled positively in men (who are seen as persuasive, the boss etc.) and negatively in women (who are viewed as pushy, bossy etc.).

A later execution from Pantene US found a tendency in women to apologise unnecessarily to men.

A current total of 15m YouTube views suggests the latter film has succeeded in starting conversations, with no apologies needed.

However, a similar attempt from Snickers drew a more mixed reception. An Australian execution of Snickers’ long-running, humor-based ‘You’re not you when you’re hungry’ proposition features a group of builders unexpectedly shouting out feminist support to female passers-by. 

The implied suggestion that men might be supportive of feminism only when they were hungry, and therefore 'not themselves', struck some as anti-feminist in itself. The spot ducks the point as it doesn’t include the transformation back to the protagonists' ‘normal’ selves that habitually takes place in this series after a Snickers bar is eaten.


  1. Hard to Ms.

Some brands, particularly in non-Western markets, believe a more direct approach is called for.

India, for instance, has seen a spate of ads making upfront bids to present brands as champions of basic women’s rights.

These include Tata’s The Power of 49 initiative to encourage Indian women, who make up 49% of the country’s electorate, to vote in elections, and Titan Watches’ The Raga woman of today #HerLifeHerChoices in which a woman chooses her career (and a luxury watch) over marriage to a man who insists she would have to give up her job after getting married.

Awards judges have picked up on these strategies. For instance, the ‘Respect for Women’ spots (shown below) for appliance maker Havells, in which coffee-makers, juicers and other devices are presented as tools to equalize the division of labour in the home, won an Asian Marketing Effectiveness (AME) award.

According to the accompanying AME case study, this ‘Respect Woman’ brand idea has helped Havells differentiate itself in a congested sector, has increased preference for the brand amongst women, and grown total sales.

The campaign’s messaging may lack subtlety and there is focus on showing women in married or familial contexts, more than single, autonomous women.

But its ability to provide hard evidence of the success of a feminist-inspired message in delivering multiple commercial goals puts this example in a relatively small band of such cases.  

At least, one hopes, until the entries start rolling in for the 2016 IPA Effectiveness Awards.

Last updated 10/06/2015

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