I got a good laugh—and a few squirms—watching the recent video “Jane Street” from Toronto ad agency John St. It presents a clever parody of the overzealous earnestness with which some advertisers celebrate their female consumers, all while mining women’s deepest insecurities and high-fiving them for flying their oh-so-flawed flags.
The argument that so-called women-friendly ads are guilty of exploitation holds merit. I recall one in which a finger was pointed accusingly at moms for passing along their physical insecurities to their daughters. I felt like I should immediately apologize to my daughter for unconsciously passing along my dislike for my thighs. That type of advertising does not fill my consumer conscience with esprit de corps for the brand that created it.
But “femvertising” isn’t just about softly lit ads that celebrate our every ripple and freckle. The concept refers to advertising that emphasizes gender equality through perspective, image, language, narrative and creative talent. It’s part of a larger trend toward presenting women and girls as strong players in their own stories, and showing men in less traditional roles than that of household breadwinner or Cats in the Cradle-style “Satur-dad.”
Femvertising also looks at the impact of advertising on the health of the consumers it hopes to woo. Research supporting the negative impact of advertising on girls’ and women’s self-esteem is widespread and conclusive. Yet, despite activist demands, the advertising industry has evolved very little; it still largely relies on sexualized representations of women. At its best, the femvertising moment asks advertisers to contemplate the stereotypes most ads perpetuate.
I’m happy to see that some advertisers are choosing to shift their emphasis from boobs to brains and brawn where women are concerned. This is only happening because it works—these women-friendly ads are driving bottom-line results for many brands. A SheKnows Media study found that 52% of women purchase products simply because they like the way the brand portrays women in their advertising, and 61% believe any brand can enter the pro-female advertising space. Given the thousands of ads we are exposed to daily, it’s vital that some reflect a world in which women are scientists and men can cook and take care of kids without special occasion.
Another complaint often raised about femvertising: Some companies celebrate female strength in their ads, but don’t follow suit within their own organizations. Akin to ‘green-washing’ gripes in the environmental community, ‘fem-washing’ accusations are on the rise. If you are selling product on a platform of female empowerment, consumers expect you to have female-friendly policies and practices in place inside your company. It would also be nice to see more strong women in top executive and board positions at companies that leverage fem-powered advertising.
I don’t love gratuitously sentimental ads. But in reality, cringe-inducing advertising exists in every genre. And I do love that some advertisers are presenting woman-friendly messages—and that consumers are responding to them.
Samantha Skey is the Chief Marketing & Revenue Officer at SheKnows Media.