To the upper echelons of American ballet, Misty Copeland didn't fit the bill of a typical ballerina. She was too tall, too oddly shaped and, as one of her rejection letters from a ballet academy read, she was too old at age 13 to begin training.
Copeland's success story of rising from ballet class at a Los Angeles Boys and Girls Club to the soloist of the American Ballet Theater went viral in July when Under Armour made Copeland a prominent face in its new women's apparel line that also includes Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn.
Marketing to women has changed dramatically from ads circa the 1950s forward highlighting women as animal-skin rugs or coffee ads featuring a man putting his wife over his knee for not getting the freshest grounds. Campaigns like Dove's "Real Beauty," or Pantene's "Sorry not sorry" ad are obviously designed to sell something to women, but also signal a shift in attitude that women respond to.
The idea of a company raising awareness about an issue while selling women a product isn't a reason to get up in arms, says 22-year-old Amulya Sanagavarapu. It's a breath of fresh air.
Sanagavarapu's company, Feminist Style, is one example of a company using products to foster positive change. Sanagavarapu says she started the line to directly confront sexism in advertising, most notably at lingerie giant Victoria's Secret.
"I think a lot of feminist ads are doing a great service to society," Sanagavarapu said. "Of course their end goal is to sell their product, but in the process they're standing up for something, raising awareness for important issues, and creating small cultural shifts that collectively benefit society."
But Nicki Lisa Cole — a research fellow at Institute for Advanced Studies on Science, Technology and Society in Graz, Austria — says that feminism is inherently at odds with the notion of selling anything to women. When companies like Pantene seem to stand up for gender equality, Cole says, they invite women to take action on the issue — by buying shampoo.
"When a company is telling you something that makes you feel good, you want to buy that product. Being 'part of the solution' is an empowering sentiment," Cole said.
Even if the motives are pure, seemingly feminist-friendly ad campaigns can muddle the issues women face by feeding stereotypes even as they seem to combat them, as The Baltimore Sun's Susan Reimer pointed out in her criticism of Pantene and Verizon's ads.
"Pantene is trying to get you to buy its product by reminding you of all these negative stereotypes and then telling you to buck up and be strong," Reimer wrote in June of Pantene's "Sorry not sorry" ad. “It is a noble message, but the other message is that your hair needs to shine if you want to be successful.”
Real beauty or faux activism?
To test whether or not feminism can effectively coexist with a commercial goal, University of Toronto sociologists Judith Taylor and Josee Johnston compared Dove's "Real Beauty" campaign with outreach efforts by grass-roots Canadian feminist organization "Pretty, Porky and Pissed Off." The goal was to see if Dove's marketing could change the way women think about society's beauty standards more effectively than grass-roots activism.
The two organizations took different approaches to debunking conventional beauty standards: Dove employed "real" women of all sizes, shapes, ages and races to feature in its ads, highlighting photos of the women in their underwear and urging women to "make peace with their bodies."
PPPO staged demonstrations, held cabaret shows and conducted street surveys about unrealistic body image in advertising. The conclusion? Feminism as a marketing tool might be an effective business strategy, but it drastically oversimplifies the issues.
"Feminist consumerism tends to obscure and minimize both structural and institutionalized gender inequalities that are difficult to resolve and that might cause negative emotional associations with brands," the study stated. "(The campaign) suggests that beauty and self-acceptance can be accessed through the purchase of Dove beauty products."
Cole says campaigns like Dove's offer women a great opportunity to seemingly make a difference or take a stand simply by buying something.
"Within branding, think about it like this: What promise is this company making? It's playing on our hopes and desires of how we want to be perceived more so than practicality," Cole said.
Dove's sense of commitment to unrealistic beauty standards was further eroded when it refocused its goals away from the campaign in 2010, as Forbes contributor Saj-Nicole Joni reported, to shore up flat-lining sales the year after the campaign launched.
"The Campaign for Real Beauty was retired to the nice-to-have background, no longer a part of driving competitive tactics or growth," Joni wrote. "In 2010, it was overhauled and softened to become 'The Dove Movement for Self-Esteem.' The tension between the desire to do good and the need to make a profit had proved fatal."
The increase in cause-related marketing, especially to women, is an example of a new problem facing women: Equating self-worth to consumer decisions. The upcoming book by Dr. Kate Cairns and Josee Johnston, "Food and Femininity," explores how women often feel pressure to buy organic or ethically sourced food for their families.
"It has to do about cultural ideas of femininity. What it means to be a good mother is tied up with care, which includes providing healthy food for your children and shielding them from the risks of food economy," Cairns said. "There's an emotional connection that goes with that. There's an assumed connection between being a good mother and an ethical consumer."
On one hand, Cairns said the ability to choose organic or "clean" food made many women feel empowered about having some sort of control over their children's well-being. On the other hand, equating consumer choices to equality or self-worth also masks other problems like poverty. In Cairns' research, a number of low-income mothers said they felt guilty about not having the resources to buy more expensive food, which made them feel like failures as mothers.
"There's a danger in saying that women today are totally empowered to make their own choices," Cairns said. "While campaigns that co-opt feminist ideas reflect an important shift in contemporary gender norms, they can exacerbate inequalities that persist."
Although the new feminist marketing approaches might be a departure from ads that are now widely considered sexist, the intended outcome remains the same, Cole said: Profit.
"They're not marketing out of benevolence," Cole said. "We’ve entered another era of higher discourse on women’s empowerment and confidence. That conversation has reached a mainstream level and because it has reached that level, it's become another marketing tool."