Women’s empowerment gets a corporate boost

This Pantene ad, "Not Sorry" has drawn mixed reviews for its message to women.

If you spend any time watching viral videos you may have seen some of the latest ads to target women and girls, and their parents. They focus on female strength, and can seem more like public service announcements than marketing campaigns. Except they're coming from companies like Verizon Wireless or Proctor & Gamble – and millions of people are choosing to watch them.

In one of the most-watched ads, for Always feminine products, there's no pitch for an actual product. Instead, a documentary maker sits behind a monitor. She asks several young adults to show her what it looks like to "run like a girl."

Each runner flails around, arms flapping, head flopping from side to side. It's a parody of uncoordinated running. Then the filmmaker asks the same question of a ten-year-old called Dakota.

The little girl races on the spot, like an athlete. No flailing. No flopping. The point? Pre-teens haven't yet absorbed the message that doing anything 'like a girl' means doing it badly – that 'girl' amounts to weakness.

"These ads are putting their finger on something that we all know is true but rarely talk about," says Rachel Simmons, co-founder of the Girls Leadership Institute. "In adolescence there is a precipitous loss of self-esteem that girls experience. And this ad explained what was happening and validated the experience of millions of parents."

Which may explain why it's been viewed more than 40 million times in just a few weeks.

Jodi Detjen, a management professor at Suffolk University in Boston, says marketers are pushing messages about female strength and ability to capitalize on a national movement.

"You've got all these organizations trying to figure out how to get more women leaders," she says. "You've got all this pressure on Silicon Valley to get more women involved."

Not to mention the push to get more young women to take up science and technology careers.

Detjen says if advertisers want to get on board too, that's fine with her.

"Because of the complexity of the problem, I think we need these different approaches, so it's just like this perfect storm."

Rachel Simmons says it's not ideal. She'd rather girls learn this stuff from their parents, not a YouTube video.

"I want to have every girl have her teacher to tell her to stop apologizing, not a shampoo commercial. But if we don't live in that world I don't want to throw out the commercial just on principle," Simmons says.

That shampoo commercial she's talking about shows a woman in a business meeting speaking hesitantly, with this line:

"Sorry, can I ask a stupid question?"

Pantene made the ad. It focuses on some women's tendency to preface their words with an apology. Then the ad urges them to stop being sorry, and start having faith inthemselves. Pantene teamed up with the American Association of University Women to promote the campaign and help it reach a millennial audience.

But some women, like Stephanie Holland, don't relate to this particular commercial. They don't like that the ad encourages women to change their behavior. Holland writes the She-conomy blog about women's marketing power. She's also run her own ad agency for 30 years. For a long time, she did change her behavior.

"I have over time realized that I had to act like a man to be successful," Holland says.

And with hindsight, she regrets that. So if over-apologizing is more of a woman thing, she says, so what? Why can't women today be themselves at work, just like men? She feels the ad is condescending.

"At the end of the day, it's saying that we should change and not them. That they're right, and we're wrong."

Holland says some differences between the sexes are OK – and she's not sorry.

About the author

Ashley Milne-Tyte is the host of a podcast about women in the workplace called The Broad Experience.

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