After decades of telling women they're fat and they smell and their faces are busted, advertisers have finally figured out that—wonder of wonders!—sometimes a positive message strikes a better tone. But just how pleased should we really be with "empowerment marketing"?
The New York Times contrasts two recent ad campaigns:
The Under Armour video became an online viral sensation as an inspirational example of conquering body image issues, and the American Apparel campaign incited controversy for its Lolita-esque character, displaying sexualized images of women styled to look like teenagers.
The campaigns are based on two different marketing strategies — one of "empowerment," and the other "inadequacy." In advertising to women today, is one strategy more effective than the other?
That Misty Copeland ad really was great. It presents a powerful image of perseverance, and it's a respectful portrayal of a talented, athletic woman.
But while individual instances of "empowerment marketing" might really hit the right now, I'm a little skeptical of this as a trend. While the Under Armour commercial is great, all too often campaigns that attempt to be empowering are nothing more than condescending crap that borders on outright negging. The grandmama of this trend is, after all, the Dove "Real Beauty" campaign. The Times points to a piece at Fast Company, an excerpt from Jonah Sachs' upcoming branding book Story Wars, in which he traces the trend's rise:
Dove based the strategy on a study that showed that a mere 12 percent of women are satisfied by their looks and only 2 percent think of themselves as beautiful. The campaign "dragged this anxiety into the light of day and in the process created one of advertising's early online viral sensations," writes Mr. Sachs.
But it's just two sides of the same coin, really. Advertisers want to make money, and they're looking for a strategy that'll move the most widgets. And after decades of ads making women feel like crap, a little counter-programming really stands out. What happens when that effect dwindles? After all, the market has been flooded with efforts like Pantene telling us to stop apologizing and American Eagle and ModCloth forswearing Photoshopping. Will marketers ten years from now find empowerment as appealing?
Sure, any time a company elects not to pollute the media with demeaning images of women, it's a small victory. But really, it ought to be table stakes, and it would be nice if they operated on something other than pure, blind profit motive. (Crazy idea, I know!)