The New Wave of Fem-vertising: 5 Female Empowerment Campaigns We Love


Eight years ago, Unilever’s Dove brand began exploring how its female consumers perceived beauty by using real women—of all shapes, sizes and backgrounds—as the faces of its marketing campaign from agency Ogilvy & Mather Brazil. What was born from this now-lauded “Dove Campaign For Real Beauty” is today’s embrace of female empowerment as a powerful theme in advertising.

Flash forward to 2014—add in the conversational power of social media and the requirement for marketers to stand for something larger than their products–and you’ve got a wave of “fem-vertising” that's sparking spirited conversations about gender equality.

From Always and Under Armour to Pantene and Verizon, let’s take a look at some of the best examples of fem-vertising and why it works:

#1. Always: #LikeaGirl

The latest campaign from Procter & Gamble’s Always feminine hygiene products swept social media by storm in June 2014 by seeking to twist our perception of the common insult “like a girl” into one of positive reinforcement for young women. The campaign, from Chicago agency Leo Burnett, posed a simple question: What does it mean to do something “Like a Girl?”

If you haven’t had the chance, take a quick look at the video for yourself. 

The Always clip shows men and women of all ages re-enacting how they think it looks to run, fight and throw “like a girl.” Their reactions are exactly what you’d expect: loose arms, feeble statures and a deeper concern for their hair than the actual task at hand —except when the young girls step up to plate. The difference between the weak dispositions of adults and the fierceness of young women is jarring. It underscores the point that somewhere between adolescence and adulthood, a girl’s self esteem plummets due to the negative connotations this colloquialism holds.

With more than 52 million views and 160,000 likes on YouTube to date, the acceptance of this video is phenomenal — with floods of praise pouring in across every social channel. But why does Always’ campaign work?

  1. The brand’s exceptional storytelling is honest, inspiring and downright sobering. As with any motivational story, #LikeaGirl pulls on the heartstrings to evoke emotion in its audience. In this case, it’s the nostalgic heartstring of the once- vibrant turned self-conscious girl in all women that creates a deeper connection to the spot and the brand itself.
  2. Secondly, the Always spot doesn’t just state the issue in its storytelling, it proposes an outcome, a movement for consumers to rally behind and make their own. We see it right there on the screen – through the young boy who realizes his actions refer to his sister’s false incompetence; through the adult’s second attempt at performing like a girl.

The bottom-line is that the #LikeaGirl mission reaches beyond Always’ products to create an initiative for fundamental change in gender biases — an issue already top of mind for Always’ consumer base. We love it!

#2. Pantene: #ShineStrong

PanteneSelf-esteem issues aren’t left behind with adolescence, which is where Pantene’s “Not Sorry” campaign steps in. Launched in June 2014, “Not Sorry” from agency Grey in New York asks: Why are women always apologizing?

In the same light as #LikeaGirl, the Pantene #ShineStrong campaign shows the egregious effects our choice of words can have on the way we perceive ourselves and other women.

#ShineStrong and its accompanying video work because the woman in the ad is you—at the office, with your husband, at the dentist—cutting your argument down with two simple words—I’m sorry. No nostalgic heartstrings needed here; any woman can see herself in this ad. It’s a perfect example of how holding the mirror up to society in storytelling can have a raw and powerful impact, not to mention this video’s brilliant act of doubling back to prove how unapologetic actions and responses put women in a stronger, more positive light.

"We used market research to look at what gender norms were holding women back and tried to tap into the most relevant and insightful areas,” stated Kevin Crociata, marketing director of Procter & Gamble in Adweek“This problem of saying sorry, it wasn't just something women in the U.S. were facing, but globally. After the success of the first campaign, 'Shine Strong' is something we're committed to as a brand." 

What Crociata is referring to is Pantene’s 2013 “Labels Against Women” ad from agency BBDO, which examined if gender bias still exists. The answer? Yes, which is clear from the ad’s clever juxtaposition of men and women executing the exact same task but with very different labels – for example, a man is the “boss,” while the woman is "bossy." 

#3. Verizon: #InspireHerMind

Fighting the good fight for gender equality and female empowerment doesn’t stop with brands focused on beauty or feminine products, however. Take “Inspire Her Mind” for instance—the brainchild of Verizon; ad agency AKQA; and womens’ storytelling platform MAKERS’ Reshma Saujani, Founder of Girls Who Code, which is dedicated to encouraging more girls to get involved with careers based in science, technology, engineering and math.


The premise of the Verizon campaign is simple: encourage girls to pursue subjects of passion rather than subjects associated with the female gender. Verizon expands on its ad with an interactive landing page posing one small but mighty question: Does Dress-Up Determine Her Future?

The question was answered by traveling down one of two virtual paths to see how playtime can either break or build gender stereotypes.

Verizon’s campaign is smart and reminds consumers of the profound effects our words and actions have on today’s youth. Verizon’s position outside of the beauty category further allows the campaign to provide a unique voice in the gender equality dialogue, opening the door for the cause to reach a wider audience. For female empowerment to work, to really work, more companies with non-female consumer bases need to provide their voice to the conversation, as Verizon has done by focusing less on beauty and physicality and more toward women excelling in male dominated fields.

The battle for women’s empowerment in advertising and marketing campaigns is far from finished. Take at look at the next two examples of how controversial fem-vertisements generated negative feedback.

#4. Under Armour: I Will Want What I Want

One of the biggest reactions to “fem-vertising” is the charge that the ad industry itself is famous for displaying women in a sexist light, remnants of which can still be seen in Under Armour brand’s $15 million “I Will Want What I Want” campaign, from agency Droga5.

Under Armour

Let me preface my hesitation with Under Armour’s series of ads by stating that this campaign is good. Under Armour has a solid mission to prove that all women face contradictory expectations, which the campaign elegantly illustrates by contrasting societal commentary with the womens’ strong physicality in the same shot.

But there’s a serious blind spot: These women – including Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn and soccer star Kelley O’Hara  are impossibly built in comparison to the ad’s general audience of everyday women. One look at model Giselle Bundchen’s abs or ballerina Misty Copeland’s calves and its easy to see how these ads, while made to empower women, could easily persuade its audiences that they’re to pursue the exact body type that “fem-vertising” is working to eliminate from the ad industry altogether.

#5. Dove: Patches Campaign

Perhaps the most controversial ad to rise in “fem-vertising” however is Dove’s “Patches” campaign, an extension of the brand’s overarching “Real Beauty” initiative. The 2014 ad follows a group of women testing Dove’s latest beauty product, The RB-X Beauty Patch, a pharmaceutical device that ostensibly makes a woman feel more beautiful. The patch however, was a placebo with an alternative agenda - to unveil the deep seated insecurities women feel about their natural beauty.

But critics didn’t buy it. New York Magazine called the Dove ad “garbage,” while Gawker Media’s Jezebel called it the “Most BS ad yet.” Opponents felt that Dove’s experiment made women seem incredibly dumb, gullible and deemed the campaign off base. 

In my opinion, this Dove campaign – which generated 4.5 million views on YouTube in its first 48 hours – is one of the strongest initiatives to rise out of marketers’ women empowerment trend. Why? The real issue isn’t that Dove manipulated women into seeing their own insecurities. The problem is that women in our society still feel immensely uncomfortable in their own skin, so much so that they are willing to believe anything to feel better about themselves. So while considered “trickery,” Dove’s “Patches” hits this inherent issue right on the head.

When asked about the campaign in an Advertising Age article, Steve Miles, Unilever's senior SVP of Marketing for Dove, stated that the campaign was created to "intentionally provoke a debate about women's relationship with beauty." Case in point: Dove piqued the unsettling feeling that set critics into a tizzy. Watching a woman realize the folly of her self-doubt should never feel comfortable. In fact, it’s incredibly distressing to watch this ad, especially as a woman. That’s what makes the spot so effective. It’s this feeling of discomfort that gives "Patches" the strongest platform for debate and potential change.

Key Takeaways from Women Empowerment Ads:

So, what can marketers learn from the new wave of fem-vertisements? Here are a few tips to consider when embarking on female empowerment-themed cause marketing campaigns:

  • Good Storytelling Sells: Pull on your consumers’ heartstrings and you’ll pull them into your cause. It’s a key component to any solid cause marketing campaign. Evoking emotion authentically in your audience helps them connect with your ad – thus your brand – on a deeper, more meaningful level. Do it correctly and your cause will then become the consumers' cause, paving the way for conversations to spark and brand loyalty to begin.
  • Align Your Cause with Your Consumers' Convictions: Cause marketing can be extremely powerful, but only when it’s genuine. Hopping on any cause won’t elevate your brand nor will it help the cause itself. Focus on a mission that aligns with your company and with the passions of your consumer base. If your audience cannot see their convictions positively represented in your marketing campaign, they won’t back your cause. Period.
  • Make the Campaign Real; Make it Relatable: These campaigns work because they force consumers to reflect on our words and actions by holding a mirror up in a very honest and truthful way. In order for consumers to spread your mission, they need to see themselves, their daughters, their mothers and their friends in your campaign. How can your consumer base join you when the women depicted in your ads are unattainably beautiful or unrealistically perfect? Showing the unique differences in women makes these causes real and relatable. Your consumers don’t want perfection; they want to stand for the rights of real women in our society.

So, can your brand break through the clutter by breaking down stereotypes? What stereotype does your audience face?

The bottom line: There’s no denying that the positive conversations surrounding fem-vertising have moved the sales needle for Dove, Pantene and other brands; but one important question still remains: Are marketers really the best voice to advance gender equality issues, or are they just in it for product sales? Join Maccabee Public Relations for part two of this controversial topic as we dive into fem-vertising with Dori Molitor of WomanWise in  a coming MaccaPR blog post.


Image Sources: Adverblog / Dr. Ads / Verizon / Droga5

About the Author

Caitlin Jagodzinski

Caitlin Jagodzinski is a former Maccabeast

Topics:  Brand Strategy

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