A few days ago, the Pantene Philippines’ “Labels Against Women” ad went viral. It was due in large part to an endorsement from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who called the ad “one of the most powerful videos” she has ever seen. While much of the chatter around the ad has been positive, a number of feminists aren’t buying what Pantene is selling.
To many, it might seem like sour grapes to call an ad with a positive message “marketing masquerading as feminism,” like Time’s Jessica Roy did or, even a bit trollish, to equate the campaign with a “ multinational corporation minting women’s insecurities into gold, while asking for credit for being so forward-thinking,” as Chloe Angyal, a senior editor at Feministing, did. However, they’ve got a point. Pantene isn’t trying to fix gender inequality, unless doing so sells shampoo.
It’s pretty clear, and you don’t even have to be particularly cynical to have this opinion, that Pantene’s strategy with this campaign isn’t to call attention to gender inequities in the workplace, but to convince women that they should buy Pantene because Pantene cares about issues important to them. The problem is they’re not even hiding it that well.
The ad features a parade of well-dressed, gorgeous women whipping their lustrous hair back and forth. Nowhere to be found is anyone resembling the types of “real women” that Dove (whose success Pantene is trying to replicate here) showed off with their “Campaign For Real Beauty.” Instead of calling out sexism directly, they tell women to euphemistically shed “labels.”
Even the taglines can’t hide Pantene’s intentions. “Stay Strong And Shine” and its counterpart social media tag #WhipIt are supposed to be clever double entendre that signify strong women and beautiful hair. Instead it reeks of subtext.
Alexandra Petri, of Washington Post’s ComPost blog, hilariously laid out the underlying message of the campaign:
Jane is “bossy”, but her mane is glossy! Buy Pantene! Make sure you look your best while they are judging your workplace performance by unreasonable standards!
The thing is, while Dove’s campaign may have similarly co-opted “body positivity” to sell soap, it came off as far less grating. Katy Waldman, at Slate, explains why:
I have no ideological objection to companies using female empowerment to sell me stuff. But spots like Pantene’s … are irksome because they equate challenging sexism with buying a product — and a beauty product, at that.
Compare the Pantene campaign with Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty,” which made waves in 2004 by showcasing six models with “real bodies and real curves.” Those ads didn’t claim soap could put an end to sexism or body insecurity. They simply presented the product alongside less conventionally figured women and asked viewers to reassess their stereotypes. You could endorse the message by buying the soap, but the soap itself wasn’t hailed as a solution. It’s a subtle distinction, but it helps explain why taglines like “Be strong and shine” (Read: save the world via lustrous hair) grate, whereas ones like “You are more beautiful than you think” work. Dove incorporated feminism without hollowing it out.
Instead of coming off as forward-thinking, the ad might just be sexist, as Peggy Drexler from Time recently noted.
“Is there anything more sexist than the notion that professional women need a hair care brand — or anyone, really — to help them learn to ‘be strong and shine’?” asked Drexler.
The lesson here is simple. If you’re going to use the language of social justice to hawk your product, you better have something more than a slick ad to back it up.
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