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Are “Pro-Women Ads” Fostering Women Empowerment Or Mere Marketing Gimmicks?

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By Pradyut V. Hande

In 2004, when Dove launched its “Real Beauty” campaign featuring everyday women of varying body shapes and sizes; little did they know that it would globally kickstart a radical new marketing movement steeped in female empowerment like never before. The critically acclaimed campaign has gone on to inspire myriad brands to delve down this avenue with the objective of creating a brand resonance differentiation plank in an increasingly hyper-competitive consumer space. Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 book – Lean In – and its subsequent campaign has further put the issue firmly in the media and public eye alike. At a time when the lines between product differentiations are getting drastically blurred in a cluttered market place, it is the continual endeavor of marketers and advertisers to foment top-of-mind recall through engaging content that finds existential resonance with their target consumer base.

women empowerment marketing campaign

Set in this backdrop, developing life affirming pro-women campaigns is gradually becoming a mainstream operative tool. While many brands such as Unilever’s Axe and the US-based Burger franchise, Carl Jr. have thrived on objectifying women as highly sexualized beings; there are many brands that have grasped the significance and purport of incorporating women empowerment as a centralized theme in their disparate campaigns. This primarily stems from the palpable evolution of human society that continues to trundle towards greater gender equality. This holds true for both developed and emerging markets alike.

Closer home, Fastrack’s latest outdoor “Sorry For What?” campaign highlights today’s urban Indian woman who lives an independent unabashed existence without kowtowing to rigid societal norms; while Vogue, India’s stupendously well-received “Boys Don’t Cry” campaign (a component of its larger #VogueEmpower initiative) draws attention to the scourge of domestic violence. And who can forget Scooty Pep’sWhy Should Boys Have all the Fun?” campaign of 2007 that succeeded in communicating the female empowerment tangent through zesty subliminal messaging! Are these mere marketing gimmicks aimed at enhancing sales or do campaigns of this nature actually foster the cause of women empowerment in a highly opinionated and fragmented society?

Let’s face it. For all their enthusiasm at creating campaigns that capture prevalent societal paradigms; the objective of marketers is evidently simple and straightforward – effectively communicating the myriad features and benefits of a given product/service offering in a manner that encourages purchase, brand loyalty and positive word-of-mouth. Set in this backdrop, adopting women empowerment as a central storyline can be a double-edged sword for many brands. Today’s increasingly discerning and sensitized consumers can astutely see through superficial campaigns that merely pander to the trend vis a vis genuine ones; replete with a deeper noble agenda. There exists a fine line between content innovation and manipulation. Consequently, Under Armor’s “I Will What I Want“, Always’ “Like a Girl” and Verizon’s “Inspire Her Mind” campaigns have struck pay dirt with their respective advertising campaigns across the USA and Europe. However, it is imperative not to get caught up in the viral wave of positive frenzy and instead view such campaign adopters through a more critical lens.

Examining the past track record of many of these brands that today have jumped onto the “pro-women ad” bandwagon often puts things into perspective. There’s a long history of marketers specifically targeting women consumers; making them feel strong, independent and empowered. Tobacco major, Phillip Morris’ 1990s “Virginia Slims” campaign that associated a woman’s professional success to slimmer “women friendly” cigarettes; is a case in point. However, what would work better today is a wholesome leveraging of women empowerment in a contemporary context with the objective of extensive brand engagement through multi-channel storytelling and cause related messaging. The recent campaigns of Havell’s and Vatika Hair Oil in India have excelled on this front by eruditely capturing the transition of the Indian woman from the traditional homemaker to a proud, professional go-getter. Such campaigns are reflective of morphing societal realities and bridging the omnipresent gender divide.

Viewing the current scenario from a more discerning lens, one would have to say that actual empowerment should stem not just from transient marketing campaigns; but from a holistic attempt at grass-root level emancipation fostered over the long run. Unilever’s globally renowned “Shakti Amma” Project is one such sterling example. The manner in which the FMCG behemoth has altered societal perceptions while raising the profile of women as key familial decision makers and often, breadwinners – while strengthening the rural Indian fabric and consolidating its market leader position – is what genuine women empowerment is all about. Stayfree’s “Women for Change” campaign; inclusive of a drive to partner with the UNICEF in order to offer basic hygiene education and services to rural Indian womenfolk is another classic illustration in point.

Furthermore, brands cannot merely bandy about women empowerment as a pleasantly packaged creative idea; but would be better served translating the very same in their own workplace. This could be accomplished by reducing the systemic gender bias with regards to salary packages, growth opportunities and job recognition. Once in-house employees themselves are convinced of their company’s brand positioning authenticity, it makes spreading the word a lot easier and consequently, the concerned brand’s messaging more believable. This approach addresses the three vertices of the Marketing Triangle – Internal, External and Interactive – thereby, co-creating value every step of the way.

Brands must today decide whether they want to chart a short term course towards higher sales revenues or undertake a more arduous and long term sojourn towards creating enhanced goodwill and equity through a more comprehensive albeit expensive campaign. It is essential not to insult the intelligence of the target consumer by re-packaging age old propagated stereotypes and subtle prejudices in the garb of empowerment as many cosmetic product companies do. Fair & Lovely’s recent “Stay Beautiful” campaign featuring Bollywood actor, Yami Gautam, has come under a deluge of criticism for this reason. Thus, it is insufficient for marketers to merely create campaigns that pay superficial lip service to women empowerment as it is a most sensitive issue and ought not to be diluted through the voice of blatant consumerism. Only when consumers sense a tangible element of sincerity in a marketer’s campaign is it likely to create a lasting impact; encouraging repeat purchase, augmenting brand recall and enhancing brand loyalty. Other key aspects that need to be given due credence include the cultural sensibilities and sentiments of the target demographic, stage in societal evolution and creative content relevance with regards to the passage of time.

It is up to marketers and advertisers alike to leverage the same as a perceptible competitive advantage, instead of packaging disparate marketing efforts as a “me too” short-sighted approach that makes a complete mockery of the central cause. Creative innovation that gets at the heart of a cause is far more effective than covert emotional manipulation of the target consumer, beset with a parochial profit driving agenda.

Note: Earlier, Fair & Lovely had been incorrectly named as Emami Fair & Lovely, which was corrected after a user pointed it out.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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