Empowerment campaigns disregard intersectionality
Reason in Revolt
According to a Dove market research project “only 4 percent of women around the world consider themselves beautiful." So in 2004, Unilever, Dove’s parent company, launched the “Campaign for Real Beauty." As written on its website, its mission is to be “an agent of change to educate and inspire girls on a wider definition of beauty and to make them feel more confident about themselves." The campaign manifests itself in various promotional advertisements, workshops and various marketing campaigns.
Fast forward to this year’s lineup of women’s empowerment advertisements, such as Cover Girl’s #GIRLSCAN campaign, Always’ #LIKEAGIRL — both companies owned by multinational corporation Proctor & Gamble — and Dove’s #ChooseBeautiful Campaign. Empowerment advertisements are on the rise and selling.
With seemingly realistic videos of heart-warming and uplifting stories of self-love, body positivity, gay marriage and other social issues, these companies want to make sure that anyone who owns any kind of video streaming device is a "consciousnessly-raised" individual.
However, by focusing its marketing strategy on a particular set of women’s issues, a common thread seems to appear in these empowerment messages. With or without intention, these brands present a reality where women have it all. With the assumption that the civil rights and feminist movements’ accomplishments for structural equality — such as equal opportunity and women’s suffrage — made women the privileged subjects of a new meritocracy, but are still stuck in their post-feminist, Lena Dunham dilemmas. In a post-feminist state that promotes “female individualism” — the responsibility as well as the blame on women — Sheryl Sandberg would agree, women just need to “lean in." But if you’re a queer, trans*, low-income, person of color, well, this advice doesn’t apply to you.
#ChooseBeautiful and buy a Dove product for a good conscience. With a series of global advertisement campaigns to be seemingly counter culture compared to the beauty industry’s racist, colorist and fat-phobic standards, buying their soap makes a great feminist accessory with a side of animal testing, human rights violations and oppressive regimes. However, ignoring the fact that Dove’s sibling company, Axe, a controversial personal care brand targeted toward men, continuously promote their product using sexist advertisements on a backdrop of women as savage animals going bananas for that manly musk.
When multinational corporations want to be socially conscious, the conversation ends at gender equality, because talking beyond that point would blow their multi-billion dollar cover. As the players who capitalize on a neoliberal slave ship, this time, no slaves are taken in, but instead, the corporations would travel in the form of corporate labor tourism, exploiting black and brown bodies in the Global South and island hopping from one country to another while dodging labor unions and human rights laws. It is a sick cycle of rich folks networking across seas and low-income families who have no choice, but to buy cheap products made on the backs of cheap laborers. Disenfranchised folks do not have the means to monetarily entice the wolves of multinational corporations.
What if Dove’s marketing team meant well with their advertisement and actually thought that images and ideas alone are enough to create change? It is because these corporations are infested with privileged subjects, with a lack of understanding of the intersection oppression or marginalized communities who ignore that race, class and gender exist within the standards of white heteronormative capitalist supremacy. When these corporations talk about feminism, they talking about Taylor Swift and her "Bad Blood" crew’s feminism. When they’re talk about feminism, they’re not going to talk about a beauty industry comprised of mostly poor women laborers. So how can one even give a damn about their physical appearance when they’re living day to day, worrying about paying rent and feeding their families? There is no pretty advertisement for these issues, no news reports, cover story or celebrity-endorsed video, because it’s too common and the rich folks are too comfortable in their exclusive oasis.
I don’t expect the "one percent" to start the revolution, because the revolution has and always have risen from the bottom up. People are speaking up, fighting back and saying that we do not live-single issue lives. But in my twisted version of the “Boy Who Cried Wolf," it’s instead the marginalized communities and identities who continuously suffer and cry out against the "Wolves of Wall Street," but are continuously ignored by communities and individuals who are too colonized to analyze that corporations, such as Proctor & Gamble and Unilever, own brands that market opposing ideologies. This equates to corporations that lack integrity and merely co-opt feminism for capitalist means.
Dove, what happened to being “an agent of change?" How do you use the same words that liberate, empower and mobilize struggling communities, while still riding on their backs and paying meager lip-service?
Rachel Landingin is a School of Arts and Sciencs junior majoing in journalism and media studies with minors in art history and digital, media and information technology. Her column, “Reason in Revolt,” runs on alternate Mondays.