Fem or Foe: Do Brands Promoting Femvertising Actually Practice What They Preach?

Photo: Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty

Advertising has long been a men’s game. You can’t even spell the word advertisement without “men” in it. But more and more advertisers are rethinking the ways they portray women in campaigns and how women respond to them — so much so, in fact, that the industry has introduced a new term: femvertising.

SheKnows Media, the women’s lifestyle media company that coined the term, defines femvertising as “advertising that employs pro-female talent, messages, and imagery to empower women and girls.” It’s not a cry for brands to portray women as better than men. It’s a call-to-action to show both genders accurately and equally.

“As we evolve the concept of femvertising, it’s really going towards more equality…of the genders through media and advertising,” says Samantha Skey, president and chief revenue officer of SheKnows Media.

Several factors have contributed to the femvertising movement — “none of which are just for the betterment of mankind or womankind,” Skey says. She points to consumer demand and interest, as well as to conversations sparked from social media and Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. But the main drivers, she says, are concerns for how advertisers influence the next generation of women and girls and how brands impact the way women view themselves today. Consider: A SheKnows Media study found that 90% of women surveyed say ads that show women as sex symbols are harmful, and a survey by beauty brand Dove revealed that 69% of women polled say increasing pressures from advertising and media to reach unrealistic beauty standards produce appearance anxiety.

Marc Pritchard, chief brand officer for consumer packaged goods giant P&G, believes that advertising can be a “force of good” — and he would know. P&G’s feminine hygiene brand Always became the golden child of femvertising when it launched its #LikeAGirl campaign in 2014 and turned the common insult of doing something “like a girl” into an empowering phrase.

“We reach five billion people on the planet every day with our 65 brands, and advertising has an impact on how people see themselves,” Pritchard said at the 2017 Tina Brown Women in the World Summit in New York. “And therefore, as the largest advertiser, we can be a force for good.”

Still, like all advertising, brands launch femvertising campaigns to ultimately sell products. The SheKnows Media survey found that 53% of consumers say they’ll make purchases because they like how women are portrayed in a brand’s ad. And at the Women in the World Summit, Pritchard said that ads that portray gender equality have a 26% higher purchase intent rating.

While brands have a financial motivation to engage in femvertising, it’s important to see if their marketing messages are matched by their internal structures, like hiring practices, corporate programs, and donations. In other words, are brands marketing this kind of gender equality messaging actually practicing what they’re preaching, or are they just jumping on the feminist bandwagon to make a buck?

This article will take a closer look at three brands’ femvertising campaigns and analyze whether these companies are walking the walk or just talking the talk.


If there’s one brand that’s synonymous with femvertising, it’s Unilever’s beauty brand Dove.

Nick Soukas, VP of marketing for Dove, says it’s been 60 years since the brand debuted its Dove Beauty Bar, and the brand is working to make the standards of beauty more inclusive, such as by launching Dove Real Beauty Productions: a “collaborative studio” initiative done in partnership with TV producer Shonda Rhimes that helps women share their personal beauty stories through film. 

But Dove’s first foray into femvertising dates back to 2004 when it launched the “Campaign for Real Beauty.” Soukas says the campaign was born out of research the brand commissioned that found that only 2% of surveyed women described themselves as beautiful. For Soukas, these findings highlighted something bigger than the brand; they highlighted a societal issue. The definition of beauty was becoming “unattainable” and “limiting,” he said, and women had gotten used to “blonde, skinny, blue-eyed” models as being the industry standard.

“Women were not seeing themselves represented in advertising,” Soukas stated in an email interview. “And as a global beauty brand, we felt a deep responsibility to change this. “

Soukas said Dove wanted to broaden the definition of beauty and have it serve as “a source of confidence” rather than a source of anxiety. So, the brand created a series of billboards highlighting women with different physical attributes — most of which didn’t match advertisers’ traditional standards of beauty. The billboards asked consumers to judge these women’s physical appearances by checking one of two tick boxes. A billboard featuring a woman with freckles asked viewers to indicate whether the woman was “flawed” or “flawless,” for instance, while an ad featuring a woman with gray hair asked if she was “gray” or “gorgeous.” Consumers could cast their votes by visiting the campaign’s website.

Then in 2005, Dove kicked off the second phase of “Campaign for Real Beauty” by featuring six real women with relatable bodies and curves in its advertisements. These ads drove people to CampaignForRealBeauty.com where they could discuss relevant beauty issues. According to DMN’s sister publication Campaign, the ads drove a 700% increase in Dove firming product sales during the first half of the year. 

Dove has been promoting this type of femvertising ever since and has caught the attention of millions of consumers. More than 50 million people viewed Dove’s 2013 “Real Beauty Sketches” ad within 12 days of its release, according to Dove, and its 2016 “My Beauty, My Say” spot has more than 12.9 million views on Dove’s U.S. YouTube channel. Soukas also noted that the number of women who consider themselves beautiful has increased from 2% to 4%.

Dove has continued to profit from this femvertising movement, too. Although Soukas said Dove doesn’t disclose sales information, Ad Age reported that the brand’s sales increased from $2.5 billion in the first year of “Campaign for Real Beauty” to $4 billion in 2014.

But Soukas doesn’t consider Dove’s femvertising profits a bad thing. In fact, he describes it as a win-win for both the brand and its consumers.

“We truly believe profit and purpose can work well together to achieve the right balance,” he said, “and we are proud to have a brand mission that makes sense for our business and provides a wider benefit to society. When consumers choose Dove’s products, they are helping to support the Dove brand’s vision to create a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety.”

Profits aside, one has to wonder if Dove actually lives by its own pro-female messaging. In many cases, it does. Dove launched several female empowerment initiatives after its “Campaign for Real Beauty.” In 2006, it launched the Dove Self Esteem project — a program that aims to promote positive self-image and confidence in the next generation of women. According to Soukas, Dove has reached more than 20 million young people through this type of education, and it intends to reach an additional 20 million by 2020.

The brand also committed to “The Dove Real Beauty Pledge,” which promises to feature “real women” (not models) in all of its advertisements, avoid digital distortion, and encourage body confidence and self-esteem. In addition, Unilever’s executive team has a strong female presence. According to the company’s website, five out of 10 of Unilever’s executive leaders are women.

Still, no brand has a perfect track record, and it can be difficult to home in on the right message. For instance, media companies condemned Dove for tricking women into thinking patches could improve self esteem and for making them appear so gullible in the “Dove: Patches” ad. Others criticized the brand for conveying that high self-esteem is only achieved through feeling beautiful (as opposed to feeling funny or smart) in Dove’s “Choose Beautiful” campaign.

Whatever the response, Soukas values feedback.

“Our relationship with real women and girls is our greatest pride, and we take their feedback into great consideration,” he said. “With each campaign, we work to deepen our relationship with women and, no matter the response, we continue to move toward our goal of inspiring a world where beauty is a source of confidence, not anxiety.”

Other speculation has stemmed from ads produced by Dove’s sister brand Axe. Sexualization is a recurring theme in many of the male grooming brand’s advertisements, which often feature attractive models and suggestive messages like “the cleaner you are, the dirtier you get.” This stark contrast to Dove’s pro-female campaigns has made people question how authentic Unilever’s messaging can be.

“How could the same company that launched Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty…be behind the arguable degrading depictions of females in ads for Axe?” read a case study written by Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management that was cited in U.S. News and World Report.

While Dove issued a statement saying Unilever tailors its brand efforts to “reflect the unique interests and needs” of each respective audience, it looks like the company is changing Axe’s tone. According to Unilever’s 2016 Annual Reports and Accounts, Axe is taking a more “progressive” stance on masculinity and attractiveness. This is exemplified in its 2016 “Find Your Magic” campaign — an ad that encourages men to embrace personal style and go against traditional standards of masculinity. 

Axe is also participating in Unilever’s #UnStereotype initiative — a call-to-action for all Unilever brands to avoid dated, stereotypical portrayals of different genders in its ads.

“In 2016, we listened to consumers and looked at the way we portray gender in our advertising and realized we needed to change,” Unilever stated in its Annual Reports and Accounts.

So, is Dove’s Real Beauty messaging real? Yes. But it looks like the brand and its parent company need to continue to evolve its gender portrayals if it hopes to resonate with consumers in the future.


While beauty and femvertising usually go hand-in-hand, there are plenty of other, less obvious brands that are championing pro-women messaging. Just look at paper towel manufacturer Brawny.

In 2015, Brawny launched its “Stay Giant” campaign to highlight its core values of strength and resilience and to tell stories of people who embodied these qualities. In 2016, it decided to build upon this campaign and do a special activation for International Women’s Day called #StrengthHasNoGender. The activation included a video series about four women who work in traditionally male-dominated fields and overcame adversity in their careers. In the videos, the women wore red plaid shirts that resembled the shirt the Brawny Man has worn on the front of the brand’s packaging since 1974.

“People responded very positively to the activation because it was very true to what Brawny stood for,” says Frances Morgan, senior brand manager of Brawny. “Brawny has always been known for being strong and so this aligned perfectly with that.”

Morgan says that #StrengthHasNoGender had such a “positive response” that Brawny decided to expand upon it in March 2017. For this year’s activation, Brawny created four new videos about women in STEM. It also made a significant change to its packaging and replaced the image of the Brawny Man with an image of a woman. These limited-time packages were sold exclusively at Walmart throughout the month of March.

“As a brand that represents toughness and strength — and that has been represented by the Brawny Man for more than 40 years — we felt like that message could resonate even more strongly by illustrating strength through a proper narrative around women who embody what the brand stands for,” says Gary Gastel, senior brand director of Brawny. “The packaging was a way to further illustrate that and to bring more attention to the program,”

In addition to the videos and packaging, Brawny donated $75,000 to Girls Inc to help drive interest in STEM education. It also relied on social, digital, email, and earned media to promote the campaign and partnered with tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams.

The campaign was a huge success, generating 77 million paid media impressions and 1.6 billion earned media impressions. Brawny also saw a significant uptick in sales, reporting a 42% sales lift for total Brawny business at Walmart and a 68% sales lift when comparing sales of its limited-edition pack to its normal Brawny Man pack.

While Brawny’s messaging is certainly positive, one can’t help but wonder: What does a paper towel brand have to do with female empowerment, and is a brand promoting overcoming female adversity actually supporting women in its own organization?

To answer the first question, Gastel says Brawny’s brand purpose of strength and resilience gives the brand “the right” to exercise its voice on this topic. Morgan also acknowledges Brawny’s role as a manufacturer and says encouraging women to study science and engineering ultimately benefits the brand.

As for living by its messaging internally, Brawny reports that two-thirds of its brand team members are women. However, it’s worth noting that less than a third (31%) of the executive leadership team members at Brawny’s parent company Georgia-Pacific are female.

It does appear, however, that Brawny is taking extra steps to ensure that women are portrayed fairly in its advertisements. For the #StrengthHasNoGender campaign, Brawny worked with the Association of National Advertisers’ #SeeHer initiative, a program that strives to generate a 20% increase or more in the accurate portrayal of women in media by 2020.

So if a paper towel brand like Brawny can experience success from supporting female empowerment, does that mean that any brand can see success from supporting any issue? Not exactly.

Gastel acknowledges that not every brand “has the right” to stand behind every issue and that even Brawny has gotten this wrong before.

“In the past, the brand has played in several areas that weren’t really true to its purpose,” he says.

That’s why when it comes to figuring out which issues they should support, Gastel advises marketers to let their brand values be their guide.

“We don’t want to go in an area where the brand doesn’t have the right to play,” he says. “We want to make sure that we stand for the brand purpose and that it’s represented accurately. That’s what we feel we’ve done here.”

Bud Light

But can brands’ values evolve as consumers and society evolve? And if so, can their messages still be perceived as authentic? Beer brand Bud Light learned the answers to these questions when it released an ad supporting equal pay last year.

Bud Light probably isn’t the first brand that comes to mind when thinking of pro-female messaging. Perhaps that’s because it doesn’t have the strongest track record of portraying women — or men’s treatment of women — in the most respectful way. A 2003 Bud Light ad, for instance, featured two men gawking over women practicing yoga, and a 2011 Bud Light Lime ad featured UFC ring girl Arianny Celeste lounging topless in a pile of limes saying phrases like “I love a good submission.” The beer brand also received backlash in 2015 for featuring the slogan “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night” on its bottles, which many associated with sexual assault.

Bud Light parent company Anheuser-Busch (AB) doesn’t have a great record, either. According to the company’s website, AB has one woman on its 11-person North American leadership team. And in 2009, former AB executive Francine Katz sued the company when she learned that her base salary was about 57% lower than her male predecessor’s, according to The Washington Post; however, Katz lost her case.

So, some consumers may have been a little surprised when Bud Light launched a commercial about equal pay as part of its Bud Light Party campaign.

Coinciding with the 2016 presidential election season, the campaign featured comedian Amy Schumer and actor Seth Rogen running for office on behalf of the mock political group the Bud Light Party. The ads discussed issues like gay marriage and gender equality. In the equal pay spot, Schumer and Rogen discussed how women are paid less than men but are often charged more for things like dry cleaning and shampoo. Near the end of the ad, Schumer shared Bud Light’s stance on the issue by telling viewers that “Bud Light proudly supports equal pay.”

“As the biggest [beer] brand and as a beloved brand, we hold a part in culture [and] we hold a part in society,” says Jodi Harris, VP of consumer strategy and insights for AB. “It is our role to stand up for the things we believe in.”

Harris says Bud Light and its creative agency Wieden+Kennedy came up with the idea for the spot by looking at Bud Light’s consumers. Fifty percent of Bud Light drinkers are women, Harris says. So, it was important for the brand to present itself as the “co-ed brand of beer,” she adds, and have both Schumer and Rogen discuss the issue of gender equality as a collaborative movement.

The equal pay spot also signified a shift in Bud Light’s advertising strategy. While Harris says having fun has always been one of Bud Light’s core values, she also says that the brand embraces inclusivity. Bud Light has shown its fun-loving side in several of its past advertisements, including the Bud Light “Up for Whatever” campaigns; however, it wanted inclusivity to be at the forefront of the Bud Light Party ads and to use humor as a nod to its fun side.

“As a brand, we’ve been focusing more on the having fun elements, which is very important of course. It’s the core of who we are,” Harris explains. “But now, dialing up one of our other very important values around being open minded and inclusive, it was a different take. Because we can lean on both aspects of our values, we could do it in a lighthearted way.”

Bud Light received high praise for its equal pay commercial. It won SheKnows Media’s 2016 Femvertising Award in the humor category and even received a shout out from activist and feminist Emma Watson. Harris says that the brand also experienced “positive momentum” in terms of social media engagement and brand health.

Unfortunately, it seems like the brand didn’t get the same lift in sales that Dove and Brawny did. While AB declined to share specific sales figures, Ad Age reported that the brand’s Q3 sales to retailers fell by “mid-single digits” and that it lost 0.65 points in market share during that same quarter.

But one question still remains: Does Bud Light actually support equal pay? When asked this question directly, Harris responded with a one-word answer. “Absolutely.” She went on to say that more than 50% of the AB’s marketing team is female and that nearly half of Bud Light’s brewmasters are women. She also says that AB focused on recruiting people from “all walks of life” when it moved its sales and marketing teams to New York from St. Louis; although, Harris makes it clear that AB does not “recruit for quotas.”

In addition, Harris says that AB has an internal resource group called Women and Beer that meets quarterly to network and discuss career topics, like advancement.

“It’s just been a phenomenal way for the women in the company to not just get to know each other but [to also] feel like we can add value to each other and to the industry,” she says.

And it looks like AB has plans to expand its diversity efforts in the future. While just two out of the 15 AB board members are female, according to the company’s website, AB InBev’s 2016 annual report reveals that women must make up at least a third of these director spots by 2022 in order for AB to be in accordance with the Belgian Companies Code.

Does walking the walk really matter?

But do all of these internal efforts make a difference? Can brands still promote these female empowerment and gender equality messages without having the right internal structures in place? While authenticity can still be called into question, SheKnows Media’s Samantha Skey believes they can. She says that she cares whether companies are practicing what they’re preaching but that she cares how they’re evolving the portrayal of women in advertising more.

“I care that the ‘walk the walk’ happens,” she says, “but I care mostly that the messages evolve mostly because [of] how much our value system…as a society is based on messages received through media and advertising. I’m not even suggesting that a company should wait and sort out their backend. I hope there’s an intention to do so. [But] I would prefer that [advancement] of positive images of both genders, diverse images of humans, and an erosion of stereotypes.”

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