The upside of faux-empowering advertising (yes, there is one)


A few days ago I caught a television ad for Lean Cuisine that struck me as rather odd. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking of Lean Cuisine as having been positioned as the frozen meal for dieters – I mean, just look at the name, for crying out loud – but the ad was clearly trying to distance itself from that with its new tagline: “Ditch the Diet – Go on a 10-Day Try-It.”  I checked out the site for Lean Cuisine and now the marketing is all about trying out the entrees – “packed with 13 grams of protein!” – and seeing “how great you’ll feel.”

Naturally, as soon as the commercial ended, I went on a rant.  I’ll spare you a blow-by-blow recounting (which, as I recall, included the phrase “they have got to be fucking kidding” and several other variations on the F-bomb of Disbelief) and just summarize it for you.  The problem with the new ad campaign is that the manufacturers of Lean Cuisine are trying to have it both ways, trying to promote what is ostensibly a “diet” product while moving away from the d-word.

Lean Cuisine isn’t the only brand to make a somewhat muddled attempt at employing an empowerment-based advertising tactic recently.  Special K used to tout the Special K Challenge, where the consumer is promised that if they eat Special K products for breakfast and lunch and then follow that up with a regular dinner, they can “drop a jeans size in two weeks.”  Now, though, they have campaigns to “shhhhut down fat talk” and they frame their products not in terms of weight loss but weight management. For a while, they also asked “What will you gain when you lose?” as a more positive way of reframing the weight-loss aims of their marketing.

Dove has also been another high-profile brands to adopt this dichotomous way of promoting their goods, with their “Real Beauty” ad campaign.  Of course, the irony is that Dove is still trying to encourage women to embrace their natural beauty by purchasing and using their beauty products. (The Illusionists have a whole post focused on the ways in which Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign falls short, looking at everything from parent company Unilever’s wide range of product fails to the fact that the campaign ads are still retouched.)

The move toward more positive marketing seems to be contagious.  Recently American Eagle grabbed headlines with their announcement that they would only use unretouched photos of models for their Aerie lingerie campaign. As Charlotte Alter at Time puts it, “After years of marketing outer beauty, it looks like inner beauty is the hot new thing.”

A lot of pixels have been spent talking about why this advertising is problematic, including on this blog, about which I am glad.  Media literacy and a healthy dose of skepticism are essential for navigating our media-soaked culture without losing one’s mind.  But rather than adding on to the already substantial body of criticism aimed at this style of advertising, I wanted to talk about it from another direction – specifically, what all of this new advertising says about us.

It’s been long known that advertisers have exploited feelings of shame and guilt to get us to buy their products.  The blog Do I Offend? is dedicated to categorizing advertising’s long, horrible history of poking at everything from a lady’s body shape to her vadge odors (to be treated with Lysol? OMG!) in hopes of getting her to part with her hard-earned dollars so she can buy some crummy product aimed at fixing these made-up flaws.  (For more on the checkered history of women-oriented advertising, check out this interview with the blog’s editor, Cynthia Petrovic, over at Bitch.)

Advertisers do it because it works. By appealing to very natural human desires to belong, to be desired sexually, to be able to care for your loved ones, to be admired and respected, they hit us in our proverbial soft, white underbellies in hopes of rendering us helpless against their entreaties.

The ever-increasing flood of this more positive advertising has me wondering if shame-and-guilt based advertising is starting to lose its effectiveness.  After all, advertisers don’t just come up with multi-million dollar campaigns because they were suddenly seized with a crisis of conscience about their roles in the world.  They work with artists, consumer psychologists and behavioral scientists, they do tons of research and spend a lot of money buying ad space and air time, and they spend a lot of time developing images and words that are intended to stimulate specific emotions and ideas in the audience.  They wouldn’t just throw all of these resources at something if they didn’t have a lot of evidence that was going to work.

I don’t think that Dove would have made the leap to positive advertising had they not realized there was a thirst among women for that kind of marketing.  And based on the fact that so many women loved the “Real Beauty” campaign when it first came out, they were right.

Balancing Jane made this point back in April:

Dove is pouring money into these campaigns because they think it will pay off in the long run, and they think it will pay off in the long run because they’ve heard us saying that we’re sick of being treated like mannequins for products instead of human beings with lives.

It was a calculated gamble and it’s one that has evidently worked quite well.  So well, in fact, that more and more advertisers are adopting the same tactics.  If it had just been Dove who had changed their way of conducting their advertising, I would be less inclined to use it to make any sort of wider judgment, but it’s not just Dove, and it’s not just beauty products or diet food.  It’s Visa, featuring Sarah Hendrickson talking about women’s ski jumping in the Olympics.  It’s Pantene, pointing out double standards in the workplace.  It’s that Bing ad, with Malala Yousafzai and Gabrielle Giffords (and…Margaret Thatcher? Really?)

They are changing their tactics because WE have changed.  We are more skeptical. We expect more. We demand more.  We do not shy away from letting corporations know that we’re #NotBuyingIt. We are tired of hearing about how we need to lose weight, how we are old and ugly unless we spackle our faces, how our lives will suck and we will die alone and unloved, our bodies chewed to pieces by the packs of cats we are sure to have left behind.  We are sick of it, and advertisers hear that and they are responding accordingly.

The message is clear: women’s empowerment sells.

This isn’t to say that I think we should suddenly cease all skepticism aimed at advertising because they acknowledge that maybe it’s not a good idea to treat their target market with disdain and scorn. After all, advertisers have only changed their tactics.  Their strategy – to get us to buy their products – remains the same. The ads are still aimed at our vulnerable spots; they’re just different ones this time around.  Further I would argue that skepticism and media literacy becomes even more critical when the politics of liberation – in this case, feminism and body acceptance – are employed in the service of capitalism, mainly because advertising has a way of defanging and depoliticizing these potent social movements in the process of turning them into warm, fuzzy, buy-stuff feelings.  Just see what happened earlier this week with Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

All that said, I do see this advertising and I find it heartening, to use Balancing Jane’s word, because I know that what’s behind all of it is a genuine change in the way we women are thinking about ourselves and our place in the world.  I might be rolling my eyes at the ads, but I’m also smiling a little bit too.

19 responses to “The upside of faux-empowering advertising (yes, there is one)

  1. Regarding the “Lysol douching” ads – it’s plausible that some of them (particularly the one from 1928 at are basically trying to market it as birth control. It’s not like there were a lot of other ways for women to control their own fertility.

    • Oooh, now that you mention it, I seem to recall this playing a role in Boardwalk Empire at one point. Good point, thanks for bringing that up. Still gives me the shivers, though.

  2. Yes! I absolutely think that marketing is a reflection of our values as a society, and the change in marketing is a sign that there has been a change in us (a change I am happy to see!) While I have absolutely no delusion that Dove or Lean Cuisine or Pantene has a goal other than money, it’s still encouraging that they now see us as fed up enough with being shamed to try a different tactic. That’s how we make cultural shifts: gradually and imperfectly.

    (Also, thanks for the link!)

  3. Love the dichotomy you point out here – I feel the same way. I love the new trend in empowerment advertising (vs. those old pictures of sad fat people next to happy skinny people) but there’s the general dislike for the way that marketing augments the ‘underbelly’ or things we should fight against in our society. Thanks for the great post!

  4. The Bing ad intrigued me with its selection of women. There are some who are clearly admirable – Malala for example. But the choice of Margaret Thatcher and even Angela Merkel had me wondering. I’m a British expat so I wondered if it was a cultural thing, but maybe not.

    I think advertisers are just very in touch with current thinking trends – I worked in marketing for years and the amount of market research that goes into new campaigns is remarkable. So overall, this is good, as you say, because it means women are less willing to take some of the cr*p that we’ve taken in the past. We are still, however, being manipulated.

    • I don’t know if it’s a British ex-pat thing or not. I know that a lot of my fellow US-ican feminists were also like, Margaret Thatcher, really? I was pretty young when she was in power but I’ve learned quite a bit about her and it felt really weird to see her alongside, say, Edith Windsor.

      Marketing and advertising is such a weird thing because I understand its role in the economy, and I even appreciate some of the more well-done advertising for its humor, skill and aesthetics, but it’s a cautious appreciation because I know that, like you said, I’m being worked on. It takes more effort to appreciate it the way I can appreciate a good book or a great song. I recognize that books and songs are also products that are being sold, to a certain extent, but the book/song itself is the product, not a means to get me to buy something else.

      Basically, capitalism gives me a headache.

  5. You’ve certainly nailed it. The first rule of marketing is to align yourself with your target audience…their worldview, their fears, their feelings. You want their heads nodding at the spoken and unspoken parts of your message, and keep in mind that people are more open to that message when they DON’T feel manipulated. Enter the warm and fuzzy sales pitch.

    You are correct when you say that Dove and company are not taking this new tact out of the kindness of their hearts. The millions they pump into market research and selling techniques has born them the fruit of some incredibly sophisticated marketing routines that let them manipulate people without said people feeling manipulated. Folks love doing whatever you suggest to them if you can somehow make it seem like their idea in the first place.

    Marketing doesn’t really sell products, it sells feelings. People buy things because of how it makes them feel, even if they think that’s not what they’re doing. Dove et all knows this full well. I agree it does say something positive that our “inner dialouge” appears to have improved a bit, but it’s still marketing. Manipulating peoples’ feelings to get them to give you money is as old as the human race and won’t likely change anytime soon. 🙂

    • Your point about the selling of feelings is a good one, because that’s exactly what happens. I’ve noticed it happens with me. I’m particularly susceptible when the advertising features female athletes doing athletic and powerful things. That is my total weak spot, and certain advertisers know how to hit it really hard.

      Folks love doing whatever you suggest to them if you can somehow make it seem like their idea in the first place.

      HA. So true. Your whole comment is right on. And I agree that it’s not likely to change soon, so all we can do is keep on our toes and take these things into consideration when deciding which corporation gets our money for, say, running shoes or yoga pants.

  6. Well, yeah. The point of advertising and marketing is to sell things; that’s its primary goal. Not to change the world. And we can’t live without consuming nothing, so we have to choose to buy certain things. Like soap. So that’s where a little media literacy can go a long way. If we understand that marketers are playing to emotions, we have a little more free will to make the choices we want, rather than simply buy in. I see most advertising as pretty neutral, unless you’re deliberately lying to people about a product that will harm them (tobacco) or using your power to shape and encourage people’s worst instincts and anxieties. But maybe that’s because I have a fairly strong intrinsic sense of direction about what I choose to consume!

    • Agree totally with your comment. My post was an attempt to add a bit to the conversation around media literacy, and to show how these things aren’t static and unchanging, that we as consumers can and do play a role in how things are marketed to us.

      Regarding your intrinsic sense of direction about what you choose to consume – I wish I could say the same about me, but it’s definitely something I had to hone with time and education. I think a lot of people are like me in this regard. Not all but enough that I felt it was worthwhile to write a post about it.

      • Man, typing things out on a tiny cellphone really cramps my formatting. 🙂
        You’re definitely right – insofar as advertising is a reflection of current thinking, values, and anxieties, this faux-empowerment stuff is probably a good sign that the world is beginning to change! In a sense, advertisers co-opting these social movements is a signal that the movements are succeeding at what they set out to do.
        So, is it dangerous that they are co-opting social movements to sell things? Not with a healthy dose of scepticism and media literacy, I think. I’m glad you’re pointing these things out because it adds to the conversation.

  7. Pingback: Lovely Links: 1/24/14·

  8. I think this trend in advertising should cause us to be more vigilant. They know what we like, and will use it to their advantage. Lean Cuisine is still diet food, and diet food implies that there is something unacceptable about you.

  9. The other thing that bothers me with the product that Lean Cusine is that they are really not that good for you. It would be smarter to eat about 150 calories more per meal of real food without all the chemicals, sodium and sugars. Sure, they might be more convenient but the “real” chicken and green beans and potatoes minimally processed is so much more beneficial in the long run.
    I agree with Blobulon: “Lean Cuisine is still diet food, and diet food implies that there is something unacceptable about you.”

    • Oh yeah, they are soooo not good for you. What’s more – they don’t even taste that great. I’d rather just have leftovers for lunch.

      I get that some people like them for the convenience factor, and that’s fine, but if you are trying to make an effort to get healthy, I would never recommend them.

  10. Pingback: What I Read Episode 3: Books That Taught Me To Read | Wilderness, found·

Comments are closed.