Ad Conscious and Self-Conscious
Dove tells me I am beautiful as I am. Pantene exposes the double standard between men and women. Always reminds me that “like a girl” should never be an insult.
And suddenly I am transported into a golden era of feminism wherein I feel completely comfortable with my appearance, my life goals, and my femininity.
Or maybe not.
I can't help being cynical about advertising campaigns such as Dove's Real Beauty Campaign or Gillette's & campaign. Sure, the general message is something I can completely get behind. These companies are saying, “Women, stop feeling inferior. Don't feel like you have to change yourselves. You are enough.”
Yet, when I watch these commercials, I hear a message that sounds something like:
WOMEN, YOU ARE SO NATURALLY BEAUTIFUL (that you should buy our lotion).
FEEL EMPOWERED TO FULFILL YOUR DREAMS (when you use our shampoo)!
EMBRACE YOUR FEMININITY (by choosing our tampons)!!!!
YOU ARE A BEAUTIFUL, ALL-POWERFUL BEING WHO WILL GO ON TO DO GREAT THINGS (just as long as you support our multi-billion dollar company, which is likely to be selling you products you really don't even need).
Predictably, rather than feeling empowered by these advertisements, I feel annoyed. These companies are taking important messages and perverting them in order to make money. Rather than having a feminist ethic, they simply operate based on the idea that corporations trying to empower women is so relatively new and radical that they are bound to receive attention.
Because, at the end of the day, they are advertisements. And, generally, they are promoting products that are not essentials, but luxury items.
Were they advertisements for household objects, such as paper towels or vacuums, the advertisers would likely spend time talking about how their product functioned and what made it superior to other brands. Were they talking about an insurance company, they might speak to the reliability or user-friendly nature of the company. Yet with cosmetic products, such as conditioner, razors, and make-up, the function or quality of the product is often less important to they buyers than how it makes them feel. Companies that sell such products have to primarily concern themselves with exuding a certain “vibe.”
And so, in the past few years (but increasingly in the past few months), corporations have turned to “feminist” advertising, whether this means endorsing “girl power” or exposing small ways in which women are conditioned to believe ourselves inferior and encouraging viewers to rise above this societal conditioning.
I am clearly skeptical of these commercials. Part of me wonders whether any of the empowerment girls and women receive from watching them lasts until the next commercial break. Yet, at the same time, I am not naive about the power that media and advertising can have in shaping one's personal ethics.
As cynical as I am about their ability to have a real impact on society, I also realize that I have been deeply affected by the advertisements that I have seen in past. Throughout my TV-watching years, I have been very insecure about my appearance, chiefly my figure (that, low and behold, looks nothing like that of a Victoria's Secret model), my skin (years of dermatologist appointments will never make me look like a Neutrogena poster child), and my teeth (which, though completely healthy, look practically yellow compared to those of the women in Crest White Strips commercials). These insecurities come partly, if not primarily, from advertisements that I have seen over and over again for years.
And so I am realizing that even if I do not appreciate feminist advertisements for what they are, I can at least appreciate them for what they are not. Every time I see a commercial inspiring me to be bold and break free from labels, I am not seeing a commercial that tells me that I have to be thinner/bustier/hairless/sexier/more stylish.
Even with an agenda, these short video clips are reminding me to appreciate myself rather than making me feel incomplete/uncool/ugly, (which is often the case with companies selling cosmetics and clothing). I would rather roll my eyes at an ad that tells me I can be a soccer-playing ballerina if I so choose than roll my eyes at an ad that condemns my body type or my damaged hair.
Because as much as I may roll my eyes and remind myself that it's nothing but an ad, the chances are I will end up internalizing a little bit of either message.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Goldberg, Ilana. "Ad Conscious and Self-Conscious." 17 February 2015. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on November 29, 2023) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/ad-conscious-and-self-conscious>.