Saklad: Buying Feminism

Using feminism as a marketing strategy is a win for everyone.

by Avery Saklad | 1/23/18 12:45am

Since the launch of the Virginia Slims’ cigarette campaign in the late 60s, feminism has sold in the mass market. Feminists today wear our pussy-hats to the grocery store, plaster our laptops with popular feminist witticisms, layer our “smash the patriarchy” sweatshirts over matching t-shirts and pin buttons printed with the female sex sign onto our backpacks. Our wallets bleed feminism. It soaks into the soap we buy, the makeup we wear, the tampons we carry. But in a market where feminism is thrown at us from all directions, it begs the question: Are we actually feminists, or are we simply buying a label?

Surf enough activist apparel websites, and you’ll notice tabs encouraging you to shop by cause. These sites provide gear for contemporary philanthropists interested in anything from farm sanctuaries to cancer funds, with proceeds going directly to organizations in need. For example, profits from Omaze’s “Nasty Woman” t-shirts support Planned Parenthood to the tune of over one million dollars, a figure that makes a real difference to an organization threatened by slashed funding. Similarly, buying a shirt from Feminist Apparel translates to sending your money to groups such as the Center for Reproductive Rights, the Equality Institute and various other organizations the online shopping site collaborates with.

Our purchasing choices can lead to indirect change as well. The activist merchandise that saunters through our everyday lives normalizes feminism by making it a cause we stand for not just when we’re picketing in Washington, D.C. but every day of the year. Gone are the days when feminism was only talked about in whispers because the label doubled as a mark of extremism — the conversation about feminism has become an open forum where everyone is invited to chime in. The more voices that contribute to the chorus, the more open the support that infiltrates the wardrobes and the laptops and the backpacks of people that we see every day, the easier the dialogue flows.

So why are we crucifying big businesses that campaign on feminism? Companies like Dove receive an outsized amount of backlash from feminists for their marketing strategies. These critics argue that by attaching feminism to capitalism, serious issues and impactful action are erased and replaced with the swipe of a credit card. Yet Dove deserves much more credit than it gets. The company could exclusively hire size zero models to enforce body insecurity in its consumers, but instead it started the “Real Beauty” Campaign. Buying a bar of Dove soap might not be synonymous to donating to the Feminist Majority Foundation, but if Dove donated all of its profits to charity, it wouldn’t exist as such a major corporation or have the clout that comes with its market share.

Companies like Dove can use their platforms to speak about anything, and they choose to speak about feminism. Cover Girl could be teaching the next generation of girls to feel embarrassed about their complexion, but it uses its media power to preach female empowerment with #GirlsCan. Pantene could be focusing its marketing campaigns on why brunettes should bleach their hair, but it launched its “Not Sorry” campaign instead. We used to buy products because they could supposedly fix all the problems we didn’t know we had until advertisers pointed them out to us. Now, we buy products because they make us feel strong.

Not every company will put its money where its mouth is, but at least some of them will use their mouths for a worthy cause. We listen to major corporations whether we register it or not. Those commercials we ignore on Spotify or glance at on TV permeate our subconscious, and while they may not directly influence our buying decisions, they remain in our minds as we shop. In today’s economy, women influence an estimated 70 to 80 percent of consumer spending. It’s no wonder that businesses are marketing to women, and if their marketing normalizes a word that’s been taboo for far too long, all the better.

As a woman who labels herself a staunch feminist, I’m grateful for feminist marketing guises. When I buy into these ads, I may be paying for a label, but with that label comes awareness and greater support for the cause. I’ll keep buying Dove soap as long as the company keeps contributing its voice to feminist conversations. Dove is louder than I am, it’s louder than online activism stores and it may even be louder than the people who wear feminism on their sleeves (and their t-shirts and their laptops). I’m not going to criticize campaigns that use feminism to sell their products, and I’m not going to complain when they keep their profits for themselves. Instead, I’m going to listen to their advertisements and know that the word “feminism” is working its way into the vocabularies of the millions of other people who are listening too.