Brandsplaining: Why marketing is (still) sexist and how to fix it.

Zone’s marketing executive, Martha Green, reports back from our eighth Book Club as she examines female empowerment and toxic gender marketing…

In 2014 Pantene told women all over the world to stop apologising in an ad that said: “Don’t be sorry, be strong and shine.” While this all sounds like a harmless way to empower shiny-haired women and sell shampoo, this was one of the pillar campaigns that sparked the catalyst of what seems like every company cashing in on ‘fempowerment’.

In Brandsplaining — the subject of Zone’s latest Book Club — authors Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts unpack the cultural phenomenon of monetising feminism and female empowerment. Or, in other words, why marketing is still sexist and how we can fix it.

Pantene — Sorry Not Sorry campaign, 2014

Where does the term ‘Brandsplaining’ come from?

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the explanation of something by a man, typically to a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronising.

“Your response is classic mansplaining”

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Brandsplaining is like mansplaining, except the man is now a brand. Brands assume authority over their female audiences. As Roberts explained: “Despite everything women have achieved, brands continue to talk to women as though they are secondary to the authority of the brand.”

How did we arrive at this world of brandsplaining?

Brandsplaining is hardly new, women have been talked down to for as long as advertising has existed. For most of the 20th century women were seen as caregivers and home makers. Having children and marriage were the height of a woman’s life, and everything before that was a rehearsal to fill that role.

This bell curve informed the way women were perceived. During this time brands took on the authority to pitch to women how to fill this role, assuming the female audience as passive. It’s this authority that is still present today under the guise of ‘fempowerment’.

Fempowerment — what’s so bad about it?

Firstly, despite the name, it’s not all bad. During the discussion Cunningham and Roberts both noted that not all brands have got it so wrong. It’s important to mention those who have done it right, by empowering women through exposing cultural biases.

Always — #LikeAGirl campaign, 2015

- Always — Keep Her Playing, Like a Girl

- Ariel — Share the Load

- Nike — Dream Crazier, One Day We Won’t Need This Day

- The Ordinary

At face value, selling fempowerment is a foolproof way to reach your female audience. However, this new wave of inspiring, motivational and positive hashtags should not blind us from the authoritative nature of brands.

Ads such as Pantene’s ‘#BeStrong’ and Barbie’s ‘Dream it be it’ might empower women, however by doing so they assume women, by default, lack power. But now, with the brand’s authority, they can ‘dare to be strong’.

Pantene, Strong is Beautiful 2017

This puts the onus on the individual to change and keeps the brand unexamined. The brand is striking a different relationship with the audience. But it’s still telling the audience that what they are is not enough and to be something else.

The new conversation

The third section of Brandsplaining discusses the concept of a new conversation and how brands should approach their audience. During the Book Club the authors discussed a few themes relating to their principles:

1. Stop being a patron and start listening

Brands are still acting as patrons to women — they’ve moved away asking them to change their appearance, instead telling them to change their mindset and all will be well. As Roberts explained “Brands are still telling women that what they are is not enough and what they need to do is change. In the fempowerment movement, that sidesteps all the inequities that are in the system and leaves them unexamined.”

To truly understand your audience, listen rather than authorise.

2. Women made

In Brandsplaining Roberts and Cunningham look at the brands who are doing it well, examining ‘made by women, for women’ who often exhibit many of the principles proposed. For example, look at the blinding contrast between Thirdlove, a women-for-women brand, whose founder took out a full page ad in the New York Times to pen an open letter to Victoria’s Secret criticising their outdated views on women.

3. Grounded and granular

Be realistic, rather than presenting ideals and perfectionist narratives — Frida Mom and Water Wipes examine the realities of parenthood rather than motherhood.

4. Be constructive not critical

It’s not about fixing things. Brands such as The Ordinary cut through the bullshit vocabulary. They introduce integrity by providing solutions without telling the audience they’re not enough.

5. An end to macho economics

Understand that women care about how the women who work for their company get treated. Marketing as a supportive veneer to women isn’t enough, there needs to be compliance behind the scenes. Look at Girlfriend Collective, which is transparent about its ethical supply chain.

6. Sexism goes both ways

Men are as trapped as women — masculinity has continued to go unreconstructed. Gender biases go both ways. Feminine ideals feed into masculine ideals and unless we unpack toxic masculinity, nothing can change.

7. Things won’t change overnight

People make mistakes and it isn’t pragmatic to think otherwise. The important thing to do is to call people out in a constructive manner and remember things won’t change overnight.

When it came to the Q&A, there were questions regarding binary genders and how this affects marketing.

How does this affect conversations around removing references to binary genders to be more inclusive?

As Cunningham confessed, their expertise lies in where women stand on the subject: “Certainly, the Gen Z audience has a huge outcry for a nonbinary expression of gender in marketing. When talking to older women, they’re often still living in a binary world.”

However, this is not a case of time and waiting for the old guard to change. “Sadly, this is not a generational thing. If you look at the marketing that happens to young children and teens it is astonishingly binary.”

How do you feel about the future of marketing?

“The assumption that women don’t have power when in fact women are the biggest, most lucrative growth audience in the world. They’re better educated than they’ve ever been.”

What’s the one quick thing you can do after reading Brandsplaining?

“Conduct a small audit that checks for bias in marketing and in your own mind. Who are you buying and investing in? Do you have unconscious biases?”

Finally, the authors agreed on one most significant thing that can be done: “Hire more women creatives.”

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You can watch the full #ZoneBookClub here:

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