“Empowertising”

Ann Friedman raises an eyebrow at empowerment conferences:

These conferences all follow a similar formula. Take a vintage feminist icon (Gloria Steinem, Jane Fonda), a Clinton, a media maven (Arianna Huffington or Tina Brown, but probably not both), and three or four celebrities with a conscience (Oprah, Angelina, Geena, Meryl). Throw in Sandberg — who is absolutely mandatory — along with a half-dozen women who run Fortune 500 companies. With only 24 CEOs to choose from, organizers can’t be too picky. Book a five-star hotel (Ritz-Carlton or similar) in Southern California or, if you’re keeping it simple, Manhattan. Choose a hashtag. Pay a few entry-level bloggers to flood the internet with 30-second video clips of the world-changing conversations taking place in front of a logo-spattered backdrop. And watch the sponsorship money roll in. …

For as long as there’s been a mainstream feminist movement, there have been corporations eager to capitalize on women’s desire for empowerment.

And simply saying men and women should be treated equally isn’t the slightest bit risky in an era when the economy demands that nearly all women work outside the home and the biggest pop stars in America embrace the term feminist.  But empowerment conferences are less a product of this friendly brand of modern feminism than they are the result of changing media business models and the rise of superficial corporate do-gooderism. Consumers are so wary of traditional advertising that one of the only ways for brands to make an end-run around skepticism is to claim, “Hey, we’re doing some good here.” As Unilever has learned with all the free press its “body-positive” Dove ads have gotten, women’s empowerment is a great theme for conscientious advertising — Bitch Magazine co-founder Andi Zeisler calls it “empowertising.”

From Zeisler’s piece:

[I]t’s reasonable to give a healthy bit of side-eye to these new ads, coming as they do after decades of frozen-pizza pandering and push-up bra “empowerment.” The contradictions at the heart of ads like Dove’s and Pantene’s sloganeering have certainly not gone unnoticed, with both feminist critics and ad-world chroniclers noting that, for instance, it’s difficult to take Dove’s championing of “real beauty” seriously when one considers that parent company Unilever is one of the largest purveyors of skin-whitening cosmetics in South Asia. And I wasn’t the only one to cringe at Dove’s recent attempt to “make armpits into underarms” with its Advanced Care deodorant; the obvious creation of a problem that the brand had just the product to fix doesn’t exactly speak the language of body acceptance.

Furthermore, the images and messages don’t go beyond the safe, upwardly-mobile striving of mainstream feminism. Verizon and GoldieBlox’s focus on how girls are discouraged from STEM studies is about as specific as the messaging gets; elsewhere, the lens is feel-good but safely generic. Most likely, we won’t be seeing ads from multinational brands that urge girls to help close the wage gap, battle colorism in media, or advocate for better labor conditions for the workers who make many of the products they’re being sold.