How Activist Women Have Never Shied from a Little Promotion

Do feminism and marketing mix? The question may strike us as absurd. And yet, critics often question the appropriateness—indeed, the morality—of companies broadcasting feminist messages to sell their products and services, especially for those that seem to pander to patriarchal ideals of femininity. Never mind that no social movement has ever been successful without relying on a modicum of promotional tactics, and that it would be disingenuous to suggest that the content of advertising can remain detached from what is preoccupying society at the time. It may well be true that the market system perpetuates a great number of inequalities, but when it comes to gendered consumption and messaging, our critical disposition often fails to capture its own biases. One bias is that promotional culture is inherently antithetical to the feminist cause.

Surveying history helps us understand that marketing and feminism have never been strangers to each other. Linda and I take a stab at collecting some insights in a photo essay titled ‘Uppity Women Unite! Marketing the Women’s Movement in America,’ now appearing in Advertising & Society Review. From street theatre and buttons to high-profile book launches, this photo essay contains some wonderful examples showing the way that the movement has marketed itself, sometimes in collaboration with major advertisers, over the past 100 years.

Local chapters of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs (GFWC), founded in 1890, produced cards or posters based on art done by one of their members. The quote in this trade card is attributed to the first feminist economist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

One of my favorite finds is the trade card depicting an infant helping herself to some bottled milk; the accompanying text rallies women to fight for their right to vote, because “Politics governs even the purity of the milk supply. It is not outside the home but inside the baby.” The last three words are bold and enlarged; the quote is attributed to the first feminist economist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Quite efficaciously, the card entreats women to shoot into action by drawing on the memory of infant deaths caused by the poor sanitation of milk production and distribution—a situation that was redressed by the feminist movement through politics and policy.

One of the most important product innovations for women was the bicycle. Posters like this were definitely intended to sell bicycles, but the product itself had a positive impact on the lives of women.

Advertising for suffrage might be conceded as a noble cause, but what about products that enabled women to participate more fully in society? As Linda highlights in Fresh Lipstick, bicycle advertisements in the 19th century often portrayed a stylish ‘New Woman’ enjoying the new-found freedom of increased mobility (both because riding a bike required less restrictive clothing, and because women no longer needed to rely on men for transportation). It was a targeting move worthy of contemporary marketing textbooks, of course, but the product contributed to breaking through the very physical constraints women were subjected to.

The first ad for Tampax, appeared in The American Weekly on July 26, 1936. The ad uses all the tricks of the trade—medical endorsement, reference to ‘thousands’ of satisfied customers, a laundry list of functional benefits, and an ‘emotional’ appeal.

The same is true for sanitary products, which I doubt many of us could imagine not having today. Yet all of these products were new once: innovative, alien, and potentially disruptive—audiences needed persuading they were good things to have. In a triple dose of advertising tactics, the first ad for Tampax (1936) did not only claim that “thousands of women” were benefiting from unprecedented “complete comfort,” but also highlighted the medical community’s endorsement, and the product’s competitive pricing. This goes to show that persuading the public (in this case, women in the 1930s) to purchase a new product involves more than just a great-sounding message: quality assurance and pricing matter too. The outcome of the widespread acceptance of these products was a marked increase in the freedoms of women.

Pantene’s Shine Strong campaign in the Philippines (2013), with its tagline “Don’t let labels hold you back. Be strong and shine” drew worldwide attention, at the same time sparking discussion on the fine and rather blurry line between feminist campaigns supported by advertisers, and advertising campaigns that support feminism.

It is true that not all advertising will be in the service of a greater social good. It is also true that buying everyday goods such as shampoo will not change society. But this does not diminish the importance of commercials that, regardless of the product promoted, take a feminist stance such as Pantene’s Shine Strong campaign. This is because—at least in our opinion—we are perfectly capable of deciding what to buy, without being beguiled into irrational purchases by some inspirational message. This idea of persuasion runs counter to the way we experience ourselves in the marketplace: cognizant, discerning, and skeptical. The pretense that feminism and marketing are natural enemies shields deeper prejudices about women’s agencies and economic self-possession. (It is also a hangover from 1970s feminism’s sympathies with Marxism, but that is a whole other story.)

Handmade posters were used to convey the feminist message during the Second Wave of the American women’s movement. This poster epitomizes the kind of homemade communication that came to be associated with the movement.

A progressive message, however, is much more difficult to conceive, express and share without the marketing apparatus that can broadcast it convincingly and effectively: discrimination is not always obvious, and sometimes we need our noses pressed to the facts. Promotional materials can range all sorts of media, outlets, and forms, and makes up the arsenal of any self-respecting movement, because informing the public of the cause is a definitional imperative. Because there is no such thing as neutral language (or neutral imagery), these materials suggest certain points of view, and adopt a manner of speaking that we readily recognize as ‘promotional.’ From the placard that reads “Feminism: the radical notion that women are people,” to Rosie the Riveter, taking part in this discourse helps to signal that people should be paying attention.

Read the full article here: ‘Uppity Women Unite! Marketing the Women’s Movement in America’


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