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Ads With Benefits?

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The advertising sector is warming up to social causes and as female issues are beginning to get more attention, we are developing a love-hate relationship with them. Pooja Salvi & Anindra Siqueira tell you more about this marketing gimmick

There is no easy way to put this — the manner in which women are portrayed in advertisements bothers us, a lot. We can’t seem to get rid of the over sexualised posters for perfume ads, the half-opened mouths in make-upon makeup brand posters and the omnipresent meek girl gaining the confidence of a shark after her successful tryst with fairness creams. The advertising sector may think that portraying women in an old-fashioned, sexist or over sexualised manner helps sell a product, but it’s not helping us! So, it is refreshing to find ads that help us see the greener side of the field.

You may have seen these ads, even spoken about them and shared them on social platforms, but you may not have realised what they are. It’s unlikely that you haven’t come across them though — a look through the stats and you’ll know how entrenched fem-vertising is. But, what exactly is fem-vertising? In essence, fem-vertising is a concept that revolves around the fact that advertisements can empower women. Brands are becoming more sensitive to women’s issues and have realised the need to focus more on female buyers. Their ads have also changed to a more respectful depiction of women. These “fem-vertisements”, if you will, rely on female talent as well as pro-female messages and imagery to empower their female audience. And, if you were paying attention, fem-vertising is not new. In fact, it has been around for decades.

With the advent of social media (and the power it holds), fem-vertising is gaining momentum. You may recall seeing the #LikeAGirl campaign or the #GirlsCan movement on your social media newsfeed. The events have been set in motion, the campaigns are getting bigger, and fem-vertising (whether you like it or not) is here to stay.

Now, we aren’t saying there is nothing wrong with fem-vertising, but we are all for it! Hear us out: there are two faces of this movement. It is refreshing to see that female troubles are being addressed in a way that people can’t help but talk about them and share them (even if it is only passive internet activism). Something as simple as getting dark circles, sagging skin and stretch marks makes women feel inconsequential and insecure. When brands carry out advertisement campaigns such as this, a more positive message is sent out in society — one that asks women to embrace themselves the way they are. It is a radical change from the conventional sexualised ads that are thrust upon us by advertisers.

Now, coming to the problem. We don’t like how hypocritical the brands can be. Consider Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign, which is over a decade old and has gained quite a bit of acclaim over the years. The thing is, Dove is owned by Unilever and several products that they manufacture (such as their cellulite-firming creams) go against their female empowerment ads. So, unfortunately, it makes us rethink the objectives of their pro-women campaign.

However, attacking Dove, or any other brand that has come up with similar pro-female campaigns, or being overly criticical is sending out wrong message. These campaigns aren’t exactly toxic the way other highly sexualised and heavily photoshopped ads that attempt to portray (and are clearly successful in) telling women to be a certain way, are.

The underlying message that these brands attempt to convey is more beautiful than it may seem. It’s great to see advertisements that tackle societal troubles in such a way. This kind of marketing is far from turning women into sex objects, curt housewives or shopaholics. Women are always lacking in something — their skin tone, their weight, their saggy breasts, their stretch marks, their inability to find a balance between love and careers — but, when campaigns tell us that we are fine just the way we are, we cannot help but feel overwhelmed.

Fem-vertising may be ads that empower women, but do they work? The stats seem to say that they do! SheKnows — a digital media company for women — conducted a survey in late 2014 to find out just how popular female-empowerment ad campaigns were and what sort of effect they have on women consumers. They surveyed over 600 women and the results (see our box) will shock you. Over 90% of those surveyed believed that the way in which women are depicted in ads have a direct impact on girls’ self-esteem. Here are a few key findings of that survey:

The Stats Explained
Pro-women advertising campaigns don’t go unnoticed by women. In fact, women respond overwhelmingly to such ad campaigns. Case in point is the fact that Dove’s sales grew from 2.5 billion to 4 billion after their Real Beauty campaign.

94% believe that ads portraying women as sex symbols are harmful
71% feel that brands should promote positive messages of women and girls
81% said that it is important for younger generations to be exposed to ads that portray women positively
52% Women said that they bought a product because they liked how the brand portrays women
51% like ads that were pro-women, because they believe this can help break gender-equality barriers

What people have to say
We spoke to a few women to find out what they think about fem-vertising and what the various pro-female campaigns mean to them. Here’s what they had to say.

Sneha Subhedar, professor of media studies at Symbiosis University, is appalled at how women embrace these ads. “I can’t think of any greater reason to be worried because women are simply embracing these ads. Getting emotional and running to buy the products is not the way to go. I cannot believe that we are unable to see beneath the hypocrisy of these brands. On one hand they are asking us to embrace ourselves and feel beautiful in our skin and on the other hand, they are selling products such as skin tightening creams and anti-ageing creams — a woman can’t even age with grace!”

Neerja Deodhar, a writer, tells us that she’d rather not pick up products of brands that sell themselves like this. “The hypocrisy angers me so much! I’m a radical feminist and don’t care about the stigma that comes with the term, but these campaigns and advertisements aren’t doing as much as they think they are. This one Dabur Honey ad released late in 2015 bothers me a lot — it shows that in the process of keeping herself fit, a woman beautifies herself and this makes the husband jealous. Is the male ego really so frail?”

Riya Mitra, brand and creative consultant for Entertainment & Lifestyle, has some powerful insights. She tells us, “For an Indian advertiser, women empowerment gets diluted with sentiments and emotions, which are feel good factors. So at the end of it, it results in making women feel better, but lacks empowerment.” She also says that she would support brand, whose ads portray female empowerment only if it is done ethically. She tells us, “One of my favourites would be the Glam-Up dusky skin ad.”

How to be wiser
If you’ve studied the stats on fem-vertising, you’d know that it really does have a significant impact. More than half of the women surveyed were swayed by such ads, which pull at the heart-strings of women and so, presumably, convince them to buy a product not solely on quality, but, as usual, on clever advertising. So, how do you protect yourself from ads like this? Well, the techniques for this are simple. If you come across an ad that grabs your attention and make you feel as though you should buy what is being advertised this very instant, take a solemn step back. Appreciate the ad for what it is, but look deeper into the product. See not just what the brand’s message is, but also what they are selling you. Do a bit of research on the product to see if it is truly better than competitor’s offerings. If you (and the product) pass all these checkpoints, then by all means, feel free to use your purchasing power the way you wish. We’re not saying, by any stretch, don’t buy products if the brand uses women empowerment to advertise. We’re just saying that advertising is, well, advertising. And, be informed about a whole range of product features before you buy.

Fem-vertising has come a long way. Virginia Slims, a cigarette brand, had women-focused advertising going all the way back to 1968. It has shifted away from its early focus, and now many fem-vertisements focus on dispelling body myths among women. Dove’s Real Beauty campaign is proof of that. With social media making up such an integral part in many people’s lives, the ad campaigns have gone social — and many of them, viral! For example, in February 2014, cosmetic brand CoverGirl came out with a campaign tied to the hashtag #GirlsCan, which is about encouraging girls to take up whatever challenges they face. But, probably the most well-known fem-vertising campaign is that of #LikeAGirl. The campaign highlighted people’s attitudes towards women in the field of sports.

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