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

Posted on August 31, 2015 in Media

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.