Femvertising: an oxymoron

Words: Hannah Ross

In 2014, the menstrual hygiene brand Always launched their #LikeAGirl campaign with a TV ad in which people discussed what the phrase ‘like a girl’ means to them. The adults interviewed saw it as an insult; the younger people saw it as empowering. Viewers described the ad as inspirational, and it quickly went viral, with the brand experiencing a 195% rise in Twitter followers.

The term ‘femvertising’ was coined in 2004 by the company SheKnowsMedia. It describes marketing that utilizes messages of female empowerment, and is sometimes considered a key signifier of fourth-wave feminism. It’s often understood to reflect a changing of the guard at senior levels of corporate power: more women are in leadership roles than ever before, and their new authority is reflected in the versions of ideal womanhood shown in the adverts they create. 

In practice, femvertising far predates the term that describes it – and it’s important to consider its history in questioning its present authenticity.

Advertising as we recognise it originated in the 19th century. Ads aimed at women but designed and created by men played on women’s roles as domestic homemakers, marketing products like washing powder and soap. Empowerment for women meant being good housekeepers and attractive wives: household appliances and slimming products were touted as women’s ‘friends’. 

First-wave feminism in the 1920s brought with it an early form of the kind of the femvertising we see today. Seeing an opening in the market – women who were shifting away from their traditional roles – adverts started to sell a bolder image of female liberty. There was, for example, a coordinated effort to open the tobacco market up to women by breaking the taboo against women smoking. In 1929, the ‘Torches of Freedom’ march took place, which saw ten women paid by the American Tobacco Company cause a scandal by publicly lighting cigarettes at the Easter Sunday Parade in New York. 

But advertising’s early allegiance with women’s liberation was short-lived. The cigarette quickly lost its status as a symbol of women’s empowerment in the 1930s, when campaigns started to capitalise on smoking’s relationship to weight loss. Ads for ‘Lucky Strike’ cigarettes had captions like ‘reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet’, and were enthusiastically received, leading to a huge rise in smoking-related illness in women. 

In the 1940s, the conception of ideal womanhood shifted according to the national need. Wartime propaganda encouraged women to abandon the domestic sphere and take up roles in the factories and farms while men fought overseas. But the 50s and 60s brought an impassioned return to traditional versions of womanhood as national infrastructure recovered, and women were all but pushed back into the home. 

It’s worth noting that civil rights advances were made at this time, too, but white people continued to wield the most purchasing power, so the very occasional appearance of women of Colour in adverts played off racial caricatures that were supposed to appeal to white housewives. Aunt Jemima in the US was a prime example, and was only scheduled for a rebrand in June 2020. To say empowerment advertising was selective would be an understatement: disruption only went as far as it needed to to ensure the continuation of the status-quo. 

The burst of sexual liberation from the 1970s meant a symbol of female empowerment – overt female sexuality – could be used to sell to men. Some adverts put models next to slogans that were innuendos; others used naked women as their sole marketing technique. One Budweiser ad from the 80s shows the company name and slogan across the torsos of three women in bikinis. There isn’t much else to it. 

Objections to the marketing of sexism were consistent. The feminist activist Jean Kilbourne released films throughout the 80s and 90s condemning misogyny in advertising, and second-wave feminist groups rallied against sexist ads as unifying enemies. 

Their work only went so far. With campaigns like #LikeAGirl, it can be tempting to think that the versions of womanhood in advertising today are only ever empowering. But BIC ran into trouble in 2012 for pushing pink pens ‘for her’, and in 2017, a Co-op Easter egg was condemned for coming with the tagline ‘Be a good egg. Treat your daughter for doing the washing up.’ The change in public response might be seen as a marker of positive change, but the urge to market to women based on outdated conceptions of femininity was still alive and kicking up until the point that it was made illegal in the UK in 2019. 

That urge hasn’t gone away – it’s taken a different form. KMPG, one of the world’s leading accountancy firms, ran a TV advert in 2015 that played off the symbol of women smashing the ‘glass ceiling’. Four years before, the company had faced a huge lawsuit over their unfair treatment of women in the workplace, and according to the Financial Times, the median gender pay gap within the company had risen to 28% as of last year. 

History has shown that advertising does not make change. It adapts. American Tobacco wasn’t interested in the suffrage movement: it saw an opening in the market for women to buy its products. So as the roles of women under fourth-wave feminism shift again, and capitalism seeks to secure its own longevity, the question we have to ask ourselves is this: is KPMG any better than BIC, Budweiser or Lucky Strike?

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Hannah Ross is a religion and theology student at the University of Bristol with interests in religious and mythological history and the evolution of modern feminism.