the problem with ‘feminist’ advertising

We speak to the creators of Jane St., the fictional ad agency selling female empowerment through deodorant.

Nov 16 2015, 2:55pm

The marketing strategy at the advertising agency Jane St. relies on the "C-LITT model," explains an employee in a promotional video. The acronym stands for "Core Lady Insecurity to Target." It helps the agency pinpoint "the most sensitive area for a message of empowerment," she says. "Even I find it challenging to locate sometimes," muses a male colleague standing next to her.

Jane St. is a fake ad agency (with a fake mission statement: "creating unique, authentic female empowerment messaging for any brand"). But it was created by a real one, John St -- a Toronto-based company with a 50:50 ratio of female to male employees and a famously wry sense of humor. Last year, the agency released a perfectly deadpan video announcing it would be shifting its focus to become the world's first catvertising agency, spoofing the trend for pushing products with kittens. This year, their target is "femvertising."

Hannah Smit, an art director at John St. who headed up the project, says she and her partner, Jessica Schnurr, had seen too many ads with supposedly feminist messages that had nothing to do with gender equality. "It had gotten to the point where people were jumping on the bandwagon of female empowerment, and many in inauthentic ways," says Hannah. "We thought it would be thought-provoking and funny to show what happened when you take this trend too far."

The Jane St. video reel shows a campaign shoot for a shampoo brand called Sylk. On set, a groomer with a tiny brush nervously fusses over a model's untamed bikini line and thickly carpeted underarms. The tagline for the campaign is "All hair is beautiful." The agency's fictional client roster also includes a sandal brand that sells shoes by subtly insulting women's feet before insisting that "beautiful soles start with a beautiful soul." Later in the video, a mobile research unit is shown visiting a high school to probe students about their body hang-ups. One researcher asks a visibly fuzz-free teenage girl, "Do people ever tease you about your mustache?" At the heart of the joke is the fact that so much "femvertising" relies on the comically despicable technique of "negging" - undermining confidence in a way that simultaneously gains approval.

Co-opting a message of female empowerment to sell makeup, tampons or conditioner is hardly a new trick. (And sometimes it's not a trick at all -- the early spots in the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, as Smit points out, bravely "shone a light on the role the beauty industry plays in distorting our perception of beauty.") But over the past two years pinkwashing has also extended to ads for yogurt, batteries and fast food. On the Jane St. website, a quote from the owner of "Hank's Cabinet Hardware" reads "I didn't think female empowerment was right for our brand. Jane St. proved me wrong."

"Some brands don't really lend themselves to empowering women, and that message can seem at odds with their product, and that's when it starts to feel inauthentic, or even exploitative," says Smit. "It can cheapen the idea of women's equality." I immediately think of that viral Pantene video, in which women with glossy hair are confronted with negative labels like "bossy" and "selfish," while their male counterparts are applauded for being "bosses" and "dedicated." The ad was endorsed by Sheryl Sandberg on Facebook and praised by Time for breaking down workplace sexism, but it uses exactly the strategy that Jane St. parodies. The ad highlights insecurities and inequalities and, far from resolving them, it uses them to provoke an emotional response and sell products.

"It's a hard line," says Smit. "We see the value and inarguable positive effect that bringing any type of attention to feminist issues has." But she was also fed up of seeing brands "reduce female empowerment into a commodity." The Jane St. project, she says, has no real objective on a company level beyond: "We just want to keep ourselves and our industry honest." But, on a personal level, she says, "I would love it if brands or marketers see this video and it helps them look beyond viral videos with feminist ideals and actually start creating products and companies with a principle of equality at their heart." She hopes it encourages better "hiring practices, equal pay, and real change beyond hashtags."

Early on in the project, Smit and her team came up with an alternate script for spoofing the femvertising trend. It was called "The Advertising Apocalypse." "The thought was that with all these empowerment messages that brands are putting out, eventually women become so comfortable with themselves that they don't buy products, and we're all out of jobs," Smit explains, laughing. They decided it would be too complicated a story to tell. But it perfectly underlines the contradiction at the core of so many "empowering" ads - and it would make a great sketch.


Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Images courtesy John St.