Fem or Foe: Do Brands Promoting Femvertising Actually Practice What They Preach?

Fem or Foe: Do Brands Promoting Femvertising Actually Practice What They Preach?

Photo: Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty

Advertising has long been a men’s game. You can’t even spell the word advertisement without “men” in it. But more and more advertisers are rethinking the ways they portray women in campaigns and how women respond to them — so much so, in fact, that the industry has introduced a new term: femvertising.

SheKnows Media, the women’s lifestyle media company that coined the term, defines femvertising as “advertising that employs pro-female talent, messages, and imagery to empower women and girls.” It’s not a cry for brands to portray women as better than men. It’s a call-to-action to show both genders accurately and equally.

“As we evolve the concept of femvertising, it’s really going towards more equality…of the genders through media and advertising,” says Samantha Skey, president and chief revenue officer of SheKnows Media.

Several factors have contributed to the femvertising movement — “none of which are just for the betterment of mankind or womankind,” Skey says. She points to consumer demand and interest, as well as to conversations sparked from social media and Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. But the main drivers, she says, are concerns for how advertisers influence the next generation of women and girls and how brands impact the way women view themselves today. Consider: A SheKnows Media study found that 90% of women surveyed say ads that show women as sex symbols are harmful, and a survey by beauty brand Dove revealed that 69% of women polled say increasing pressures from advertising and media to reach unrealistic beauty standards produce appearance anxiety.

Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer for consumer packaged goods giant P&G, believes that advertising can be a “force of good” — and he would know. P&G’s feminine hygiene brand Always became the golden child of femvertising when it launched its #LikeAGirl campaign in 2014 and turned the common insult of doing something “like a girl” into an empowering phrase.

“We reach five billion people on the planet every day with our 65 brands, and advertising has an impact on how people see themselves,” Pritchard said at the 2017 Tina Brown Women in the World Summit in New York. “And therefore, as the largest advertiser, we can be a force for good.”

Still, like all advertising, brands launch femvertising campaigns to ultimately sell products. The SheKnows Media survey found that 53% of consumers say they’ll make purchases because they like how women are portrayed in a brand’s ad. And at the Women in the World Summit, Pritchard said that ads that portray gender equality have a 26% higher purchase intent rating.

While brands have a financial motivation to engage in femvertising, it’s important to see if their marketing messages are matched by their internal structures, like hiring practices, corporate programs, and donations. In other words, are brands marketing this kind of gender equality messaging actually practicing what they’re preaching, or are they just jumping on the feminist bandwagon to make a buck?

This article will take a closer look at three brands’ femvertising campaigns and analyze whether these companies are walking the walk or just talking the talk.


If there’s one brand that’s synonymous with femvertising, it’s Unilever’s beauty brand Dove.

Nick Soukas, VP of marketing for Dove, says it’s been 60 years since the brand debuted its Dove Beauty Bar, and the brand is working to make the standards of beauty more inclusive, such as by launching Dove Real Beauty Productions: a “collaborative studio” initiative done in partnership with TV producer Shonda Rhimes that helps women share their personal beauty stories through film. 

But Dove’s first foray into femvertising dates back to 2004 when it launched the “Campaign for Real Beauty.” Soukas says the campaign was born out of research the brand commissioned that found that only 2% of surveyed women described themselves as beautiful. For Soukas, these findings highlighted something bigger than the brand; they highlighted a societal issue. The definition of beauty was becoming “unattainable” and “limiting,” he said, and women had gotten used to “blonde, skinny, blue-eyed” models as being the industry standard.

“Women were not seeing themselves represented in advertising,” Soukas stated in an email interview. “And as a global beauty brand, we felt a deep responsibility to change this. “

Soukas said Dove wanted to broaden the definition of beauty and have it serve as “a source of confidence” rather than a source of anxiety. So, the brand created a series of billboards highlighting women with different physical attributes — most of which didn’t match advertisers’ traditional standards of beauty. The billboards asked consumers to judge these women’s physical appearances by checking one of two tick boxes. A billboard featuring a woman with freckles asked viewers to indicate whether the woman was “flawed” or “flawless,” for instance, while an ad featuring a woman with gray hair asked if she was “gray” or “gorgeous.” Consumers could cast their votes by visiting the campaign’s website.

Then in 2005, Dove kicked off the second phase of “Campaign for Real Beauty” by featuring six real women with relatable bodies and curves in its advertisements. These ads drove people to CampaignForRealBeauty.com where they could discuss relevant beauty issues. According to DMN’s sister publication Campaign, the ads drove a 700% increase in Dove firming product sales during the first half of the year. 

Dove has been promoting this type of femvertising ever since and has caught the attention of millions of consumers. More than 50 million people viewed Dove’s 2013 “Real Beauty Sketches” ad within 12 days of its release, according to Dove, and its 2016 “My Beauty, My Say” spot has more than 12.9 million views on Dove’s U.S. YouTube channel. Soukas also noted that the number of women who consider themselves beautiful has increased from 2% to 4%.

Dove has continued to profit from this femvertising movement, too. Although Soukas said Dove doesn’t disclose sales information, Ad Age reported that the brand’s sales increased from $2.5 billion in the first year of “Campaign for Real Beauty” to $4 billion in 2014.

But Soukas doesn’t consider Dove’s femvertising profits a bad thing. In fact, he describes it as a win-win for both the brand and its consumers.

“We truly believe profit and purpose can work well together to achieve the right balance,” he said, “and we are proud to have a brand mission that makes sense for our business and provides a wider benefit to society. When consumers choose Dove’s products, they are helping to support the Dove brand’s vision to create a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety.”

Profits aside, one has to wonder if Dove actually lives by its own pro-female messaging. In many cases, it does. Dove launched several female empowerment initiatives after its “Campaign for Real Beauty.” In 2006, it launched the Dove Self Esteem project — a program that aims to promote positive self-image and confidence in the next generation of women. According to Soukas, Dove has reached more than 20 million young people through this type of education, and it intends to reach an additional 20 million by 2020.

The brand also committed to “The Dove Real Beauty Pledge,” which promises to feature “real women” (not models) in all of its advertisements, avoid digital distortion, and encourage body confidence and self-esteem. In addition, Unilever’s executive team has a strong female presence. According to the company’s website, five out of 10 of Unilever’s executive leaders are women.

Still, no brand has a perfect track record, and it can be difficult to home in on the right message. For instance, media companies condemned Dove for tricking women into thinking patches could improve self esteem and for making them appear so gullible in the “Dove: Patches” ad. Others criticized the brand for conveying that high self-esteem is only achieved through feeling beautiful (as opposed to feeling funny or smart) in Dove’s “Choose Beautiful” campaign.

Whatever the response, Soukas values feedback.

“Our relationship with real women and girls is our greatest pride, and we take their feedback into great consideration,” he said. “With each campaign, we work to deepen our relationship with women and, no matter the response, we continue to move toward our goal of inspiring a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety.”

Other speculation has stemmed from ads produced by Dove’s sister brand Axe. Sexualization is a recurring theme in many of the male grooming brand’s advertisements, which often feature attractive models and suggestive messages like “the cleaner you are, the dirtier you get.” This stark contrast to Dove’s pro-female campaigns has made people question how authentic Unilever’s messaging can be.

“How could the same company that launched Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty…be behind the arguable degrading depictions of females in ads for Axe?” read a case study written by Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management that was cited in U.S. News and World Report.

While Dove issued a statement saying Unilever tailors its brand efforts to “reflect the unique interests and needs” of each respective audience, it looks like the company is changing Axe’s tone. According to Unilever’s 2016 Annual Reports and Accounts, Axe is taking a more “progressive” stance on masculinity and attractiveness. This is exemplified in its 2016 “Find Your Magic” campaign — an ad that encourages men to embrace personal style and go against traditional standards of masculinity. 

Axe is also participating in Unilever’s #UnStereotype initiative — a call-to-action for all Unilever brands to avoid dated, stereotypical portrayals of different genders in its ads.

“In 2016, we listened to consumers and looked at the way we portray gender in our advertising and realized we needed to change,” Unilever stated in its Annual Reports and Accounts.

So, is Dove’s Real Beauty messaging real? Yes. But it looks like the brand and its parent company need to continue to evolve its gender portrayals if it hopes to resonate with consumers in the future.

Published at Thu, 27 Apr 2017 10:00:00 +0000

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