Empowertise Me!

Excerpt from the new book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl©, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement, by Andi Zeisler. Order your copy today!

“In a village chapel in upstate New York, 150 years ago, the initial bold steps in a revolution that would ensure women the right to vote were taken at the first women’s rights celebration at Seneca Falls. And now you can celebrate the anniversary of this milestone in women’s rights, and the strength and conviction of the courageous suffragettes involved whenever you use your First USA Anniversary Series Platinum Mastercard®.

Celebrate women’s rights. Apply today.”

It wasn’t the first time that women’s liberation had been connected to our power to spend money we didn’t have, and it wouldn’t be the last. But First USA’s linking of women’s enfranchisement and their freedom to go into debt, in the form of a 1998 credit card come-on, was an almost admirably shameless co-optation of the language of feminism in the service of capitalism. (The bank even promised to send a free “women’s almanac” to cardholders after their first purchase.)

One of the many preliberation factoids that regularly makes the rounds to illustrate just how far women have come is that, up until the mid-1970s, women were unable to get credit cards in their own names. Married women needed a male cosigner—a husband or father—in order to use a card that was then issued in his name; single, divorced, and even widowed women were denied altogether. So when 1974’s Equal Credit Opportunity Act was passed, it was a marker of liberation realized: Marital status was no longer a bank’s business where credit was concerned, and women were granted the right to buy whatever, whenever, with money that was theirs, and to go into debt right alongside men. (In theory, at least—there’s been plenty of evidence over the years that banks continue to discriminate, often overtly, on the basis of gender and race.) But the idea that purchasing itself was a feminist act became a key tenet of emerging marketplace feminism, an embrace of feminism that’s depoliticized, decontextualized, and less about ensuring equal rights for women than about empowering them as consumers. 

It’s not a stretch to say that modern feminism was co-opted by the market almost as soon as it was born. The white, middle-class “new woman” of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, who had leisure enough to chafe against the Victorian ideal of the “angel in the house,” was an early target of advertisers seeking a fresh demographic. Those advertisers constructed ideal female consumers as mothers and wives who, like the late-blooming heroines written by Henrik Ibsen, were full of unmet potential, longing to buck convention and participate in public life. For this woman, consumer goods were positioned as one route to autonomy: Shredded Wheat wasn’t just a cereal product, it was “Her ‘Declaration of Independence.’” Meanwhile, the breezy, pompadoured “Gibson Girls” created by illustrator Charles Dana Gibson came to embody the spirit of the younger New Woman, and were often shown bicycling, playing tennis, and serving on juries. Both the New Woman and the Gibson Girl were more palatable commercial versions of the dreaded suffragists of the era, whose zeal to have their message heard was widely lampooned. (“At the suffragette’s meetings you can hear some plain things—and see them too!”) And both were depicted as refined and educated, but not so much so that they were out in the streets, agitating and hunger-striking for the right to vote.

Cigarettes were one of the first products that allowed the commercial realm to align itself—in market potential, if not political commitment—to emerging women’s movements. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, smoking was considered such an unseemly activity for women that they were often explicitly prohibited from doing so in public. So it made sense that the American Tobacco Company saw capturing this emerging market as akin to “opening a gold mine right in our front yard.” ATC deftly exploited the first wave of feminism when it hired Edward Bernays (now considered the “father of public relations”) to craft campaigns that would get more women smoking, and buying, cigarettes. Bernays initially appealed to women’s vanity by proposing cigarettes as slimming aids—“Reach for a Lucky instead of a sweet,” urged print advertisements—but his hunch was that appealing to their growing sense of autonomy might be the real mover of product. In 1929, Bernays and ATC orchestrated a walk for equality down New York’s Fifth Avenue, hiring female participants to hold aloft Lucky Strikes as “torches of freedom,” while encouraging bystanders to “Fight another sex taboo!” by joining them in inhaling the heady smoke of gender equality. In an early example of contrived media virility, the photos of the march caused a national sensation and, as expected, helped nudge the percentage of female cigarette buyers up from 5 percent in 1923 to 12 percent post-march. Lucky Strike rivals quickly followed suit, with Philip Morris even organizing a U.S. lecture tour in which cigarette experts instructed women on the finer points of lighting up.

Four decades later, Virginia Slims, the first cigarette explicitly marketed to young, professional women, furthered Lucky Strike’s legacy by trading on the idea that smoking was a pivotal site of liberation. The famous slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby” suggested that being able to inhale that formerly masculine smoke was liberation itself, rather than a byproduct of it. (It’s fitting that when Mad Men’s Peggy Olson leaves Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce in the show’s fifth season, her first task at her new agency is to come up with both a name and an ad campaign for “a cigarette for ladies.”) As the first cigarette that used women’s images to appeal to women as customers, Virginia Slims was an unqualified success for parent company Philip Morris in the first two decades of its existence; by the 1980s, its market share had grown from 0.24 percent to 3.16 percent.

As the second wave of the women’s movement gained momentum and media notice, the opportunities to market products using aggrandizing sales pitches grew. Advertisers were careful not to explicitly name feminism or the current women’s liberation movement: The whole point was to capture potential customers who believed enough in the concept to want to support companies that referenced it—but not enough to shun what feminists saw as tools of sexual objectification, including foundation garments, douches, and more. Could this cynical approach be enough to sell Massengill “feminine hygiene” aerosol douche by using the tagline “Freedom Spray”? Apparently it could.

The business of marketing and selling to women literally depends on creating and then addressing female insecurity, and part of the revelatory potential of women’s lib involved rejecting the marketplace’s sweet-talking promises about life-changing face creams and shampoos—not to mention the entire premise of women as decorative objects. There was good reason for industries that sustained themselves on the self-hatred of women to dread the potential reach of feminist movements. Co-opting the language of liberation to sell their products allowed them to have it both ways, celebrating the spirit of the movement while fostering a new set of insecurities (“Natural-look” cosmetics, anyone?) and new aspirational archetypes.

Charlie, a perfume “for the new woman” that launched in 1973, was the first American fragrance to become a blockbuster, in part because it was Revlon’s first to target women under 35. Charlie’s iconic ad was a major part of its appeal: in it, model Shelley Hack jumps out of a Rolls-Royce and strides confidently down the streets of New York City in a kicky pantsuit, embodying all the freedom and confidence of the women’s movement with none of the baggy clothes or scowling. The accompanying jingle assured potential buyers that this was the fun kind of liberation: “Kinda young, kinda now, Charlie!/ Kinda hip, kinda wow, Charlie!” The Charlie girl didn’t so much reflect the new vision of young, liberated white femininity as it did present it as a superior alternative to actual feminist activism. In her 2013 book Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection, Barnard College president and self-described former reluctant feminist Debora Spar testifies to the power of Charlie’s decontextualized liberation: “Feminists were loud and pushy, strident, and unfeminine. Charlie, on the other hand, was gorgeous, ladylike, and successful, a working woman and a mom. Who needed feminism if you could have Charlie?” For women like Spar, Hack’s embodiment of liberation was much more alluring than the real-life agitators who made her possible. And that attitude, goosed by the product and embraced by its consumers, helped lay the groundwork for today’s marketplace feminism, in which image is removed from theory and the fun kind of liberation is the most valuable.


The history of drawing on feminist language and theory to sell products has been driven by the idea that female consumers are empowered by their personal consumer choices—indeed, that choice, rather than being a means to an end, is the end itself. The idea that it matters less what you choose than that you have the right to choose is the crux of “choice feminism,” whose rise coincided with the rapid, near-overwhelming expansion of consumer choice that began in the 1980s. Consumption, always associated with status, became elevated as a measure of liberation and swelled with the self-obsession of the privileged but insecure. Feminist cultural historian and media critic Susan J. Douglas has noted that the success of advertising to women in the ’80s hinged on its effective pairing of status and power with liberation. As neoliberal, greed-is-good, if-I-have-an-umbrella-it-must-not-be-raining rhetoric became the common tongue of the overclass, luxury beauty products, designer labels, and exercise regimens (Buns of Steel!) became liberatory achievements rather than mere consumer goods. “For women in the age of Reagan,” wrote Douglas, “elitism and narcissism merged in a perfect appeal to forget the political already, and get back to the personal, which you might be able to do something about.” The representations of choice in a time of tacit postfeminism translated neatly into what could be called “empowertising”—an advertising tactic of lightly invoking feminism in acts of exclusively independent consuming.

Empowertising builds on the idea that any choice is a feminist choice if a self-labeled feminist deems it so, but takes it a little bit further to suggest that being female is in itself a constant source of empowerment. The ego, already so key to effective advertising, is indispensible to empowertising, with its emphasis on the “personal sell” that takes the focus off objective value and places it firmly within the buyer’s sense of individual mythology. What Douglas pinpointed as liberatory narcissism wears a different guise than it did in the 1980s, one that’s less concerned with status or possessions than with the very state of womanhood.

Ads that portrayed women as constantly fiending for chocolate, for instance, were part of the monetization of women’s lib in the 1960s and ’70s—the new, independent woman, ads implied, could get almost everything she needed from chocolate. But both sexual double standards and the belief that women should remain restrained in all appetites have held fast, so in the 1990s and early 2000s, the empowertising of chocolate hinged on both transgression—portraying both chocolate and its female eaters as “sinful” and “decadent”—and absolution. In the former category, there were ads that featured women draped in yards and yards of rippling brown silk, as well as lots of references to “melting.” In the latter, there were chocolates who played the role of the cheerleading best friend in a romantic comedy, assuring you that everything was great. The individually wrapped Dove Promises, for instance, each contain an almost aggressively peppy affirmation: “Keep your chin up and a stiff upper lip. Maybe stick your ass out a little,” advises one. Another enthuses, “You go girl! You deserve this”—since there’s always the chance that even on the brink of popping a wee chocolate square, women will be consumed with so much self-doubt and anxiety that an extra push from a candy wrapper is required.

These messages are one part of the larger picture of female consumers encouraged to think of consumption as striking a blow for women’s equality rather than just, you know, eating some chocolate. Yogurt advertising and marketing has worked a somewhat similar angle in positioning what should be a gender-neutral snack as deeply, essentially feminine. The fervor with which women in yogurt commercials bond over their love of fruit-flavored dairy has made for excellent satire, including comedian Megan Amram’s viral “Birth Control on the Bottom” satire and a Saturday Night Live skit in which Kristin Wiig played real-life Activia spokesperson Jamie Lee Curtis as a yogurt fanatic who can’t stop pooping. It remains an irresistible target because even when actual yogurt ads address their own feminine myths—non-yogurt foods are guilty pleasures, yogurt is a “good” substitute for sweets—they do nothing to change them. One memorable Yoplait ad of the mid-1990s featured two disgruntled bridesmaids turning to yogurt for solace, soon exclaiming that the yogurt was “not-catching-the-bouquet good” and “burning-this-dress good.” It was an attempt to subvert gendered beliefs (wait, don’t women love weddings?) while deftly pressing others (yogurt is something that women just naturally crave completely apart from its associations with dieting).


Advertising’s pitch to feminists has changed over time, from “liberated” versions of feminine standbys—the personal douche, the pushup bra, the low-calorie frozen food—to the liberation inherent in consumer choice itself. But in the past few years, the pitch has become a bit more nebulous. 2014 introduced a new breed of empowertising with an ad for Verizon called “Inspire Her Mind.” In it, a girl in various stages of child and teenhood is discouraged at every juncture by an offscreen voice—when she’s stomping through a creek (“Don’t get your dress dirty!”), when she’s examining marine life in tidepools (“You don’t want to mess with that”), when she’s building a rocket in the garage (“Why don’t you hand that [drill] to your brother?”). The final scene finds the girl stopping in front of a science-fair poster in a school hallway, pausing, and then dejectedly using the window’s reflection for that most stereotypically girly act: applying lip gloss. The voiceover—“Our words can have a big impact. Isn’t it time we told her she’s pretty brilliant, too?”—appeared as statistics on how girls are often steered away from STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields bloomed on the screen.

Another ad, for Always menstrual products, involved filmmaker and longtime girl-culture chronicler Lauren Greenfield asking adults to pantomime running, fighting, and throwing “like a girl.” They did so with exaggerated, simpering steps and rubber-wristed movements. Greenfield then asked actual girls to do the same activities, and they followed directions with a fierceness untainted by stereotype—throwing, running, and fighting with their entire bodies engaged and their faces full of intent. Afterward, Greenfield followed up with both the kids, who were genuinely confused by the idea that doing things “like a girl” was meant to be an insult, and the adults, who were well aware. The text in the ad then noted that girls’ self-confidence drops dramatically at puberty, and urged viewers to redefine what “like a girl” means.

The “Inspire Her Mind” ad centered on drawing more girls to STEM fields, an issue that’s gained a lot of cultural traction, outreach, and funding in the past decade; the unspoken message is, “Hey, we’re the carrier who cares about your (or your daughter’s) potential, so choose us.” Likewise, the “Like a Girl” spot wasn’t pegged to any new product in the Always line, but seemed simply to have been created to position the brand as one that’s conscious of how stereotypes and beliefs about girls and women affect their lives.

Here’s the thing we all know about advertising to women: The products aimed their way, from household cleaners to cosmetics to personal-care products, are pitched to solve a problem that in many cases the consumer might not ever know she had until she was alerted to and/or shamed for it. (What’s that, Dove? My armpits are supposed to be sexier?) What these new commercials announced was that, finally, it seemed possible for the ad industry to reach women without making them feel totally awful about themselves. That’s right: After decades of women’s movements, that was advertising’s big breakthrough—don’t make women feel like shit and they’re more likely to buy your product. An incredibly low bar had been cleared, and everyone rushed to pat themselves on the back for it. Suddenly, there was a name for the phenomenon: “femvertising”—or, excuse me, #Femvertising. It was a hot topic on ad industry trade sites, and panels on how to do this astonishing new thing of not insulting women became a draw for conference slates and seminars. A 2015 AdWeek roundup was titled “These Empowering Ads Were Named the Best of #Femvertising”; and that year’s BlogHer—a yearly convening of lifestyle and brand-friendly women’s media—featured a #Femvertising awards ceremony. In September 2014, a few months after both the Always and Verizon ads premiered, Ad Age reported on their effects as measured by the Advertising Benchmark Index. It found “that not only do a majority of consumers feel the ads promote a positive message for women, [but] they have a strong, positive impact on the brands’ reputation. ‘Given the subject matter, the call-to-action scores were higher than might be expected,’ said ABX president Gary Getto.”

Advertising has one job to do, and it’s not to reflect the nuances of social movements. But the staggering growth and spread of the medium in just the past two decades—from its slow creep into new physical spaces (shopping-cart handles, sports leaderboards, public-transit tickets) to its primacy in the digital realm (sponsored tweets and Instagram posts, responsive Facebook ads) to its sneaky guerrilla and viral manifestations—has meant an attendant growth in power. If, as media scholars like Jean Kilbourne and Sut Jhally have spent decades arguing, advertising’s power is both cumulative and unconscious, it will absolutely continue to play a crucial role in the ongoing project of gender equality.

Still, there’s a vast difference between using the language of empowerment to suggest that being able to choose between, say, three different kinds of diet frozen pizza is a radical accomplishment and helping to create a world where diet frozen pizza isn’t something that needs to exist in the first place. (Or, at least, isn’t something marketed solely to women.) And the difference between feminism and marketplace feminism is just as vast, which is why the designation of femvertising is useful, if not necessarily in the way it was supposed to be. Empowertising and femvertising are both ways to talk about the business of selling to women without conflating examples of that business with actual feminism. They’re a gateway toward learning more about specific issues that impact women and girls; maybe they’re even a way to discover alternatives to mainstream products. But celebrating the ads themselves simply celebrates advertisers’ skill at co-opting women’s movements and selling them back to us—and then rewards us for buying in.

Keep Reading: Order your copy of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl©, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement by Andi Zeisler!

This article was published in Money Issue #71 | Summer 2016
by Andi Zeisler
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Andi Zeisler is the cofounder of Bitch Media and the author of We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl®, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement. You can find her on Twitter.

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