feminist-plus-text11(Source: sally biddall)

A few weeks ago, had I been asked if I was a feminist, I would have said, hell no. However, that was before I truly understood the concept of feminism because like most women my age, I think of feminists as man hating, over sensitive hippies (yes, I know this is somewhat stereotypical, but hey, I’m just being honest). Often thought of as a man-hating movement, according to Oxford Dictionaries feminism is, “the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.” So, no, feminists are not man-haters (albeit some are), but inequality haters; I guess I am a feminist after all.

While I’m not sure where the negative connotation of feminism came from, I can only assume it dates back to the first and second waves of feminism. We are currently in what is considered the third wave of feminism. Let’s get a better idea of the ideology behind feminism.

Feminism at a glance

The first wave of feminism, which took place during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, is rooted in the idea that women should have equal rights, including contract, marriage, parenting and property rights. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the spotlight was on women’s suffrage. The end of the first wave of feminism is attributed to the passing of the Nineteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which awarded women the right to vote in 1919. Standouts from this wave include Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.

Keeping with the fight for political and gender equality, the second wave of feminism, also known as the Women’s Liberation Movement, focused on a number of issues including sexuality, family, workplace, reproductive rights and legal inequalities. This was also a time where women began the battle against violence, including marital rape laws, rape crisis and battered women’s shelters and changes to divorce laws and custody. This wave lasted from the 1960s through the third wave of feminism in the early 1990s. Betty Friedan’s, “The Feminine Mystique” influenced much of this wave.

A response to the “failures” of the second wave’s movement, the third wave of feminism challenged the ideas of the preceding movement, questioning many of their ideas including women’s sexuality. This period of feminism ultimately accepted that women consist of “many colors, ethnicities, nationalities, religions and cultural backgrounds.” (Source: Wikipedia) This wave is still growing, and continues to change daily.

In terms of marketing, which I am here to discuss, feminism has always and will always play a large role in advertising and marketing campaigns.

Feminism and marketing

I know sexism is still a large part of advertising and marketing. We all have our own opinions and ideas of what’s sexist or what is humorous, even if we think it’s misplaced or misunderstood. With all the advances we have made in the equality of men and women over the years, are marketers unknowingly or unintentionally making it an uphill battle for women to truly be seen as equals, or do we take advertisements and marketing campaigns too seriously?

As a 25-year old, single woman, I think I identify with the majority of women in my demographic. This demographic consists of a woman who:

  • Is single
  • Between the ages of 22 and 28
  • Employed full time or part time
  • Interested in:
    • Health and fitness
    • Beauty and fashion
    • Dating
    • Pop culture and current events
  • Values spending time with family and friends
  • Believes in working hard and playing hard
  • Actively seeks ways to advance career
  • Is an advocate of making her own decisions and being independent
  • Freely expresses her opinions and ideas, despite what others may think
  • Stands up for what she believes in
  • Does not take herself or others too seriously

This just about sums me up if you were to oversimplify and categorize me, which is what we do as marketers. There I said it; we stereotype and categorize people into cookie-cutter groups. And you know what, I’m okay with this. In fact, I am very much an advocate of this when it comes to marketing and identifying an audience.

As marketers, we create the ideal consumer in our minds and tailor our marketing efforts to them. Sometimes we leave out certain groups of people, not to intentionally isolate, but for the mere fact that some products are ideal for a very cookie-cutter type of person. If we are targeting men, we know men love to see women prancing around in a scantily clad outfit. It’s biological, and biological impulses shape the world; for good and bad.

While I don’t personally see an issue with using sex to sell a product, I do have issues with portraying a woman (or man) in an ad in a demeaning manner. To me, this is lazy marketing. I know some men don’t view women as equals (and shame on them), but to take the easy way out to attract men by discrediting all the advances we have made as women is disgusting and quite frankly it shows a lack of ingenuity. So yes, I am an advocate for marketing to specific demographics, but not at the expense of others. At the very least, there’s a classy (and perhaps a subtle) way to isolate a group when it comes to marketing.

Maybe this is a fault of the marketing industry, but how can we create an effective marketing campaign without identifying an ideal consumer? Marketing is about more than simply attracting the consumer to purchase our product one time. Marketing is about creating a brand image that people buy into repeatedly; it’s about attracting and retaining customers and it’s about connecting with the consumer, whether it’s our ideal consumer or someone who doesn’t fit the norm.

We know not everyone will identify with every marketing effort, and that unfortunately, people will sometimes be offended or insulted. But in a time when you can alienate and anger a person with one simple word or graphic, we have to make decisions based on the audience we are targeting.

Let’s take Dolce & Gabbana for example. This first advertisement depicts a woman restrained by one man while three other men stand by watching. Widely seen as “gang rape”, this ad was ultimately pulled, but not without some serious backlash.

(Source: Business Insider)

A newer ad campaign is much more tasteful, and while D&G are still clearly using sex to sell, they do it without offending either sex.

(Source: The Cut)

While I could go on endlessly presenting examples of sexist ads that are often seen as a step back from the progress we have made in the three waves of feminism, I’m not going to. I think we all have an idea of which ads are completely sexist and the ones that are executed tastefully.

The future of feminist marketing

Now that we have an idea of what past and current feminism looks like, what does the future hold for feminism and marketing?

According to author and former philosophy professor, Christina Hoff Sommers, “what we need is a calmer and more user-friendly feminism.” Instead of tearing women down for choosing to emphasize their sexuality, we should be accepting their choice to be strong, sexy women. If we go back to the two Dolce & Gabbana ads above, we see how a woman’s sexuality in marketing can take two extremely different roads.

Where the first ad shows a disgusting and demeaning sexist gang rape, the latter portrays a woman in control, while still being very sexy. The second ad is a perfect example of how we can move towards a calmer and more user-friendly approach to feminism and marketing. Instead of “in your face sexism”, why not attempt a more widely accepted use of sexuality: a woman in control of her sexuality.

Where marketing has a tendency to make women sex objects in ads by depicting them as docile sex objects, we as women have to take back the control. No longer can we be docile objects, instead we must accept and own the fact that we will always be viewed as sexual creatures. Once we can accept this, we can understand and embrace calmer, more user-friendly ads.

As I’ve mentioned before, Miley Cyrus is a marketing genius. Instead of allowing others to define her sexuality, she has taken it upon herself to expose her sexual side. Although many disagree with her choices, they were just that: her choice. She made it a point to “demean” herself and reveal her sexuality. If it was her choice, was she actually demeaning herself or simply accepting that the world views women as sexual objects?

In her music video, “Wrecking Ball”, she literally takes a wrecking ball and sledgehammer to the standards of society. She is no longer conforming to the ideas of others, but taking charge of how she uses sex to sell. She physically and metaphorically crashes into the concept that women don’t have a choice in being sex objects.

Miley is challenging what feminism is all about. She is bringing us into a new wave of feminist marketing. A wave where we (women) welcome being seen in a sexual way, as long as we are portrayed in a strong, confident manner. Strong and sexy; does it get any better than that?

Is Miley Cyrus leading us into the next wave of feminism? A wave where women appreciate their sexuality…