How Ads Learnt That ‘Women Empowerment’ Sells More Than Objectification

It was in the 1920s, with the first wave of feminism in full swing, that the American Tobacco industry first appropriated the movement. Edward Bernays, who later came to be known as the “founder of public relations”, had the brilliant idea of selling cigarettes to women, through “Torches of Freedom”, a campaign, which associated emancipation and equality with the right to smoke. During the Easter Parade of 1929 in New York City, Bernays tipped off the press about a dramatic stunt set to unfold.

Bernays’ secretary Bertha Hunt stepped out into the crowd and lit a Lucky Strike. Ten other women, who Bernays had personally picked, followed Hunt’s footsteps and lit their own “torches of freedom”. It caused a sensation and the press and photographers quickly lapped it up. Sure enough, the number of women smokers went up from 5% in 1923 to 18% in 1935!

A patriarchal society simultaneously driven by a consumerist ethos depends not only on women’s paid and unpaid domestic labour but also on their purchasing power. For its own continued existence, such a society must make sure that the power women wield is appropriated, and made docile. After all, women make up a significant portion of the consumer population in developed as well as developing countries.

Globally, in 2013, women controlled $29 trillion in their capacity as consumers. Of this, 44% is the percentage of household consumption controlled by women in India, where there has been a steady increase in the number of working women and their earnings in the last decade. By 2020, it is projected that there will be 158 million working women in India with their net earning amounting to somewhere near $900 billion.

Today in India an advertising industry that once built its empire by objectifying women’s bodies is now selling women’s empowerment through ‘femvertising’, which is catching on. This is a vital link in this superstructure of oppression that keeps such a society up and running.

In 2016, Titan Raga put out an advertisement followed by the hashtag #breakthebias, which begins with a corporate boardroom meeting.

The ad meant to challenge how women are perceived at the workplace. But instead of addressing the fact that a woman can be a competent employee on her own merits, it it ends up implying that the same stereotype simply doesn’t apply when it comes to men.

The Evolving Consumer

In 2014, Vogue launched its “Vogue Empower” initiative, which claims to draw attention to women’s empowerment, with Deepika Padukone as the face of its “My Choice” video. But contrary to Vogue’s expectations, many women were quick to point out that the video felt directed towards the elite, featuring women who were perfectly groomed and expensively clad, and that it failed to tackle important issues such as the threat of rape, domestic violence, the wage gap or the male gaze that women have to put up with every day.

In what can be seen as an interesting development in consumer awareness, many rightly pointed out the bare-faced hypocrisy of a slick lifestyle magazine like Vogue, talking about choices, when the magazine is notorious for airbrushing women’s bodies to make them look thinner, and whiter, epitomising conventional notions of beauty.

The advertising industry has long alienated women from their own bodies, thus requiring them to purchase the fundamentals of their own gender, while ‘femvertising’ has been used by patriarchy to sterilise its own dissent. An interesting question that arises then is: are women themselves aware when they purchase, for example, a beauty product, that their decision may have been influenced by adverts? Two friends I spoke to, both young female consumers in their 20s, had this to say:

“Ads help inform me about a brand but that’s about it. The products I settle for mostly happen to be the ones that suit me,” answered my friend, a working professional in the marketing field. Another friend, a software engineer with a multinational company, shares, “I am aware of the nature of advertisements and beauty standards but I still purchase these products as I’m supposed to look presentable to a certain extent.”

Getting Femvertising Right

Another question: Seeing as how the advertising industry isn’t going to go away anytime soon, can femvertising be more than a cheap gimmick and instead play a more positive role in disseminating progressive ideas? Ariel’s #ShareTheLoad campaign from 2016 took gender stereotyping head-on with regards to domestic labour.

The video has over 2 million views on Youtube and the message shifts the onus of responsibility to generations of men who have been complicit in perpetuating gender roles and patriarchal values.

The fact that there are people within the advertising industry who, at the very least, are willing to have these conversations shows that there’s been a clear shift in cultural outlook. However, while femvertising can sometimes be used to initiate interesting conversations and challenge stereotypes, the problem remains that this would not be a sustainable phenomenon across all industries.

For instance, empowering messages from the beauty or tobacco industry are going to remain inherently problematic. Secondly, to evolve further, femvertising also needs to tackle not-so-glamorous issues such as the wage gap, income inequality and unpaid domestic labour.

It also must be more intersectional and cut across class and caste barriers. Last but not the least, issues must be dissected and understood well, and their projection, nuanced. Or else, it’s a missed opportunity (as in the case of the Titan Raga ad).

If advertising is an arena where intense cultural battles are fought, then to be truly empowering, it needs to be more vigorous and authentic in challenging cultural norms and attitudes, and not reduce the idea of empowerment to the choice of buying a product. At the end of the day, empowerment cannot be purchased from a store but it’s a fire that women themselves must light in order to cast away the yoke of centuries-old darkness.

Soumadri Banerjee is an intern with Youth Ki Awaaz for the batch of February-March 2017.