The Feminist Shampoo

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Issue 13, Volume 111

By Anisha Singhal 

Feminism is the new trend that advertisers are trying to capitalize on. Slogans like “It doesn’t matter who wears the pants, as long as they are clean” (Tide), “Color for lips that speak up” (MAC), and “Advil: mansplaining relief” (Advil) are appearing more frequently. While pro-feminism advertisements seemingly come off as supportive of the feminist movement, these companies are only profiting off of the commoditization of feminism without actively supporting the cause. For instance, while MAC is supposedly encouraging women to speak up, they have also been called out for various instances of racism, including racially motivated firings. Companies can give the impression of being progressive without implementing any progressive policies in the workplace or donating to feminist organizations; all they have to do is put up a couple of pink posters calling for #GirlPower to be considered “woke.”

When companies advertise, they often keep the demographics of their customers in mind. Considering that 85 percent of purchases are made or influenced by women, assimilating feminism into their marketing strategies is a smart move for companies. For the feminist movement, however, such marketing is counterproductive. As Andi Zeisler, the founder of the feminist organization [EXPLETIVE] Media, pointed out, “Marketplace feminism comes to steal the show from more explicit active feminism.” The average consumer is unaware of the distinction between active feminism and marketplace feminism. By purchasing a product that has been marketed as feminist, a consumer is left with the impression of supporting a progressive company. Most of the time, however, the customer’s money never touches the pockets of any organization working toward that change, and feminism is often just for show.

Commoditization of feminism encourages symbolic feminism and develops a false sense of progress. Companies often appoint one woman to an executive position and check the diversity box without paving a path for other women to follow. The institutions and power structures that perpetuate the gender divide and discrimination in the workplace can be ignored, so long as companies put up a facade of progress through advertising without solving the root of the problem. While companies appear to be making some effort, either through advertisements or symbolic promotions, they don’t have to work hard or have an incentive to facilitate more meaningful changes, like closing the wage gap, weeding out inappropriate employees, granting longer maternity and paternity leaves, and preventing sexist promotions or demotions.

Furthermore, using a social movement as a marketing strategy patronizes the cause. In a publicity tactic, Burger King tweeted, “Women belong in the kitchen.” After grabbing people’s attention and creating an uproar for making such an atrocious statement, they followed up with another tweet explaining: “If they want to, of course. Yet only 20 percent of chefs are women.” Sexism should not be thrown around for a catchy advertisement. Millions of women around the world are trapped by the “women belong in the kitchen” mentality, where families and cultures often discourage women from pursuing their own careers and passions to take care of their families instead. Though Burger King claims that it is on a mission to change the gender ratio through culinary scholarships for women, these are simply empty statements without clear goals and results.

Companies, inherently driven by profit, cannot drive change without quantitative goals to hold them accountable. Changes like women’s suffrage, independence, and harassment policies all come from organizations dedicated to attaining social and political justice. The Women’s Rights Project successfully pushed to lift the ban on women in combat, the National Organization for Women has led the charge for pro-choice policies, and The National Coalition for Women and Girls in Education lobbied vigorously for Title IX, which forbids gender discrimination in schools. By commoditizing the social movement, we are drawing attention away from such organizations which are actively involved in feminist change and toward companies hoping to scrape some profit off a “trend.” When we see feminism everywhere, the part of the movement that is genuinely pushing for change is easily overlooked. And while the flashy ads are more visible, their impact is pernicious.