Brands Can Change the Narrative, Especially Around the Stigmatization of Feminism

Too often women are still patronized in campaigns

Illustration of different people of various races, abilities and genders helping each other climb and build a structure.
Feminism isn't some dirty word to avoid in campaigns.
Getty Images

Denmark is the world’s least feminist nation, according to a new survey on attitudes toward gender. Only a quarter of Danish women identify as feminists. This is surprising news given that the country surpasses many other European nations on gender equality.

It seems there is still something rotten in the state of Denmark. But as we know, discomfort, prejudice and ignorance around the word “feminism” isn’t solely confined to the home of hygge and Lego. Even in 2019, this stigma still exists everywhere in the world.

The rejection of feminism is fueled by humans’ inherent fear of the other. Our deep-rooted suspicion and distrust of people who we perceive as different from us lays the foundations for bigotry and racism. “The other” has been fiercely weaponized, so it’s no coincidence that with the #MeToo movement making progress, feminism is once again perceived as a threat. No wonder many women still shy away from the feminist label and feminists are trolled as militant man-haters. The true meaning of feminism—which is simply the advocacy of equal rights for women—gets lost in all the noise. And spoiler alert: This is literally the misogynist’s playbook.

Every brand whose purpose relates to supporting humans should be a feminist.

Advertising and the media have played a shameful role in this and therefore have a responsibility to start getting things right. Brands have gone from portraying women as sex objects or housewives to the current trend of patronizing women with “femvertising.” It’s superficial and has nothing to do with empowering women; it’s about lazy tropes to get them to buy stuff. We’ve been condescended to by brands like Wrangler telling women they are “more than just a bum,” and we’ve had to witness the hypocrisy of companies like KPMG, which ran an ad campaign championing women breaking through the glass ceiling while being the subject of a lawsuit for discrimination against women in the workplace.

Those brands hijacking feminism need to prove themselves worthy of using the term or aligning with such a movement. Every brand whose purpose relates to supporting humans should be a feminist, not just adopting feminism as slogan, a theme or a hashtag but making it central to its operations. They should follow the example of female celebrities who use their platform to fight for women’s equality, such as Serena Williams, Beyoncé or Emma Watson. These celebrities, who have become brands in themselves, live and breathe feminism; it is imbued in what they say and do. Brands targeting both women and men should be doing the same.

Brands have so much power that they can change behavior if they want to. Nike is among those that have tried to reshape how women are portrayed, showing them as fully-fledged human beings. The brand hasn’t merely reduced their communications to lazy stereotypes or empty empowerment slogans likes some others have. But even Nike has gotten it wrong sometimes, as we’ve seen with its failure to support female athletes during pregnancy and maternity leave. However, we are prepared to forgive Nike as they get so much right so often.

Gen X ad executives need to work out a solution to these changing attitudes and standards if they want to keep their jobs. There’s a new generation coming through in our industry that simply won’t tolerate the reduction of women and men to gender stereotypes, and they’ll be in charge one day soon. As well as taking inspiration from celebrity feminists, look to powerful inspiring women in the industry, like Karen Blackett, Cindy Gallop or Bozoma Saint John. We need more women like these and feminist men at the top so we are hardwired to power up a generation of proud feminists.

I urge brands targeting both women and men to not only stop with the stereotypes but to actively show women as sentient individuals with voices and opinions. We live in a world where we need more activist marketers, prepared to live by their values and use their brands to slow down the march toward more hate, division and trolling.

This is a clarion call to our industry to be bolder, better and more Nike. Be honest with your communications and portray people, regardless of gender or race, as they really are. That way as an industry, we can gradually shape feminist mindsets, stamp out the stigma and change behavior.