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Advertising Empowered Women: Hit or Miss?

You don’t need to be a market researcher to notice a shift in how products are marketed to women. While seeing less pink and weird blue fluids are well received in my book, I have noticed something about the way some of these ads are framed, particularly in think pieces from marketing and advertising newsletters that I wasn’t sure if I agreed with: hailing these advertisements as empowering to women. I fully support efforts that educate consumers and provide them with the necessary information to make best decisions for themselves. But I had to wonder what exactly does it mean for these advertisements to empower women and do they really hit the mark? 

First, understanding that empowerment itself is a concept originally established with an entirely different meaning. Born of political theory to examine systems of oppression, the concept of empowerment has morphed into an unapologetic and ultimately commodified identity targeted to women (you can take the researcher out of academia, but you can’t always take academia out of the researcher!), as detailed in a recent New York Times Magazine piece. What this typically ends up looking like is a series of  brands and products, often paired with a pithy hashtag, depicting “real” women. Now, I am all for dismantling gender stereotypes in the retail space and the positive impacts of diverse representations, but as a woman who always assumed she was real, many of these advertisements don’t leave me feeling empowered. (Or does this make me a robot?)

Advertisements with “real” women commonly portray women that stray from the perfect, often hyper-feminine models women are used to seeing, especially with beauty products, apparel, and menstrual products. While some powerful exceptions exist, most often these advertisements reinforce a dichotomy where women can only be one or the other with no room for the movement, ambiguity, or the messy multidimensional bits that make us, us. In doing so, yet another box for women to be put in is created, dictating how women are represented and expected to act – not quite empowering.

So how then can advertisements reach women? The answer, I believe, is to stop thinking of women as a singular, all-encompassing group and start understanding that differences in experience, perspectives, and needs that exist.  One interesting example of this is the recent Adidas “Here to Create” Campaign, featuring a wide variety of athletes, celebrities, and influencers who are not pigeon-holed into one box or another, but demonstrate their various passions, creativities, strengths, and weaknesses – oh, and they happen to be women, too. What this campaign does is go beyond the empowerment façade to, as Jason Norcross describes to Adweek, “[…]understand we’re past talking to women as women – you have to talk to them as people, talk to them as athletes, talk to them as beer drinkers, talk to them like you would anyone else.”

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