This Female Creative Calls BS on the "Female Empowerment Brief"
Michele Jaret / WNW Member
With feminism in the zeitgeist, brands want to be part of the buzz. As a result, briefs targeting women are trending toward an ask for an “empowerment” message. A noble intent, one would think, but as a female creative who is often called on to answer these briefs, I’m left feeling more icky than empowered. As advertisers, we play a major role in the messaging and imagery that feed the minds of our society -- a task, I believe, we could be doing more responsibly.
In my analysis, the female empowerment brief can be reduced to a few simple issues. I share them with you now.
We live in a society that creates a very threatening situation for any woman who is truly in touch with her power. Though it may be the patriarchy that made this so, it will not be men who reconstitute the power of women. Empowerment is a feeling that is born in the individual or not at all. How to “make women feel empowered” is not going to be agreed upon in the conference room of a multinational media conglomerate -- that would be empowering to the media conglomerate. The solution will not be lead by our male bosses and it will not be “signed off” on by the people who sign our paychecks. The corporate structure, with all of its hierarchy, divisions, competition, and walls -- a masculine entity built by men in their own image -- is not exactly a hospitable environment for the feminine -- a more feeling, flowing, and spacious presence -- to come into her power.
Whether men are telling women what constitutes as “sexy”, or whether they’re telling us to “go for the corner office,” the problem lies in the telling. And with the telling comes the suggestion that women don’t know what to do, that they can’t decide for themselves, that we all have to rally around them and show them who they are. My suggestion is that we simply get out of their way; free from all of the empty chatter and meaningless headlines that cloud our brainspace, the power that lies within is bound to resurface.
And if there is anything more we could be doing it’s this: take the time to understand where true power comes from. Men and women alike have much power to gain when we look within ourselves for answers, instead of toward the loudest voice in the room with the highest capacity for mansplaining. We reclaim our power when we question these voices.
Ten years ago, when Dove punctured the heretofore airtight myth that there is only one version of beauty, they did so by calling out what had been wrong with the advertising industry, seemingly taking responsibility for how advertising could better represent what it looks like to be a happy, secure person. Dove has since shown that it is unfit to authentically lead this kind of industry revolution, especially given the brand’s most recent transgressions involving representations of race. But the truth remains that major brands with big advertising dollars have the power to dominate the media, and therefore public thought. Wielded thoughtfully, this kind of power could, in theory, be used for good.
Where “Real Beauty” fell short is that it started to point the finger back at women, asking them why they didn’t feel better about themselves, instead of leading the charge as advertisers who take responsibility for the messaging and imagery they put into the world. What’s perhaps more unfortunate about the original Dove ad is that it’s since become “the Dove ad,” which has now “already been done.”
Of course, all of the best ads will get a few good years of copycatting, but “Real Beauty” is well into its second decade, and feedback like “it’s too close to Dove,” sadly comes more often than “how can we pick up where Dove left off?” This last question would be a brief worth answering.
True empowerment says that in this sliver of reality that I call my life, I am the boss. It’s knowing that when the gods cast me as the role of Human Being in this episode of “Life on Earth”, they didn’t make a mistake. They didn’t forget to hook up any of my circuits, or screw in any of my parts. Empowerment is knowing that I am whole on my own.
This is the power we attempt to destabilize when we ask people to trade their sense of self for the promise of an upgraded version that comes complete with [insert product benefit here]. When we suggest that women are just this one purchase away from fulfilling the dream of becoming whole, this, in fact, is disempowerment.
So, how can we truly offer empowerment?
My first response would be that it’s not our place, but since we’re here, I’ve compiled a list of thought starters:
Treat women as equals. Don’t point out their supposed insecurities only to offer them a solution for a price. Don’t portray them as one-dimensional. Don’t stereotype them. Don’t objectify them. Learn what this truly means. Speak to women as adults. Don’t lie to them. Understand that “different from you” doesn’t mean “needs help.” Don’t try to explain things to them. Learn how to truly listen. Be open to being wrong. Question your own opinions about women. Figure out why you personally feel the way you do about them. Learn to get comfortable with the feeling of a powerful woman in the room. Own your own insecurities around this, rather than using external power sources to diminish women. If you are hurt or in pain, find healthy ways to express and heal this. Examine your ideas of what power looks and sounds like. Understand that although the world we live in right now was created and designed by men, this doesn’t make it the best option. Face the reality that it’s not the best option, and commit to being part of the solution.
To brands who wish to do business with women, I offer this question: Instead of selling us the story of our own deficiencies, why not start by addressing your own? If you really see me as a powerful woman with the ability to discern what I want and what I need, then why not give it to me straight? If you’re going to sell a product, then why not sell it? Tell me what you’ve got, what it does, why it’s great. If you’ve really got a product worth buying, then what’s your real reason for bringing women’s self-esteem into this?
What’s that you say? The product isn’t really worth buying? It’s filled with chemicals? It’s mass-produced in a factory staffed by underage workers earning pennies per hour? It falls apart in the wash? It’s got too much sugar? It causes headaches? Addictions? Will malfunction and need to be replaced within a year? Creates holes in the lining of our stomachs? Causes restlessness? Causes anxiety? Causes diminished sense of self?
When we can all start to face our own shortcomings rather than projecting them onto marginalized groups, we will understand the real meaning of empowerment.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally submitted to the OpEd section of a prominent advertising publication, but was rejected by the editor for "straying too far from the topic of advertising." We mention this as it illustrates who holds power in influencing which conversations are recognized, how certain voices are silenced, and who determines what is considered "relevant" to a given topic or conversation.