Female empowerment, marketing and the US election: Why gender messaging matters right now

The message of female empowerment is bubbling under the surface of this US election – the marketing opportunities are limitless if Clinton wins.

Female empowerment Hillary Clinton
Beyoncé, Hillary Clinton and Jay-Z

Female empowerment has been a growing theme within marketing departments over the past couple of years – driven forward by rising political and cultural awareness around gender equality and beyond. Memorable moments from brands including Dove, Pantene, Always and Under Armour have powered a culture of questioning the stereotyping of women, enabling and fuelling the conversation on a global stage.

In early 2016, a US agency called Badger & Winters then introduced a campaign called #womennotobjects, which pushed for the advertising industry itself to stop objectifying women in its messaging – identifying a broad variety of brands who typically do so, including from fashion the likes of Tom Ford, Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs, American Apparel and Balmain.

“Sex doesn’t sell” was the message from the agency’s co-founder, Madonna Badger, at Cannes Lions this year, backed up by a study showing that the objectification of women impacts every single KPI, to the extent that women today have less interest in wanting any sort of interaction with such brands at all. Another study by The Ohio State University found that “as intensity of sexual ad content increased, memory, attitude, and buying intentions decreased”.

Jim Winters, president of Badger & Winters, added: “There’s always a smarter, more creative way to tell a brand’s message that doesn’t rely on demeaning women, but in fact does the opposite – it emotionally engages women in a respectful way.”

Backing this sentiment further during Cannes Lions came a new pledge from Unilever. Having found that 40% of women do not identify with the women in its ads, it launched an initiative called #unstereotype, which is a global ambition for all of its brands and the industry at large to advance advertising away from stereotypical and outdated portrayals of gender and instead deliver fresh campaigns that are more relevant to today’s consumer.

Let’s not forget that advertising can be a powerful force in leading positive cultural change, with progressive portrayals proven to not only be better for society, but better for brands, Unilever highlighted.

Which leads us to the US election. What could have been a cultural moment pushing forward the potential of the first ever female president in the history of the nation, has become a scandalous depiction of modern society led by an ignorant, narcissistic, not to mention sexist, white man (to use some of the more polite words). In fact, the majority of coverage of late, has indeed been around Republican nominee Donald Trump’s own objectification of women.

From one debate to the next, the entire race has degenerated into a mudslinging contest, rather than one based on policy – which the media has eagerly covered time and again. Hillary Clinton has consequently frequently appeared to be defending herself against Trump and outlining what she’s not, rather than striding out in front of him to argue what she is. The interesting thing surrounding that has been a relative loss of understanding around what Clinton’s merits as an individual and a politician really are.

It’s a familiar adage – a woman in leadership comes across as bossy rather than decisive or powerful as a man would. An article in The Atlantic summarised the amount of public hostility that goes toward overt displays of female ambition as being particularly profound for Clinton (the gender-based paraphernalia at the Republican National Convention especially mindblowing in support of this, with signs reading “Life’s a bitch: Don’t vote for one” for instance).

According to the Public Religion Research Institute, Americans who “completely agree” that society is becoming “too soft and feminine” were more than four times as likely to have a “very unfavorable” view of Clinton as those who “completely disagree”, The Atlantic explains.

Clinton is worth more than just the fact she’s a woman, of course, but this election was always going to be about gender for that very reason. Trump’s undeniable stance actively knocking (not to mention sexually assaulting) the women around him, has only made it more so.

One of the most memorable campaigns from Clinton for the election as a result, shows the negative comments Trump has said about women over the years, reflected through our daughters. Notably, it was targeted at married women (who traditionally would vote Republican) in the suburbs of swing states.

“I wish I didn’t have to say this, but, indeed, dignity and respect for women and girls is also on the ballot this election,” Clinton said at a rally in North Carolina alongside Michelle Obama.

Trump even provided the ultimate feminist moment himself when he called Clinton a “Nasty Woman” during the final debate – in doing so summing up much of the stereotypical view of women in power that’s long been held, and that advertising is finally trying to rebuke. That phrase was then reclaimed and turned into a cry for the future: “Nasty Women Vote” became the tagline.

Just this weekend Beyoncé then took to the stage to support Clinton. “I want my daughter to grow up seeing a woman lead our country,” she said. Most poignantly however, she took a controversial comment made by Clinton in the early 90s and put it on the screen behind her. “I suppose I could have stayed home and baked cookies and had teas. But what I decided to do was pursue my profession,” it read. In doing so it was instantly reclaimed as a feminist mantra.

Female empowerment Hillary Clinton
Hillary Clinton’s controversial 1992 quote turned into a feminist mantra by Beyoncé during the US election

Turn to advertising, and there’s currently a lot of work around this message of female empowerment from numerous global brands once again.

Take H&M as an example. Its latest campaign, She’s a Lady, is a “badass commentary” (as the Huffington Post puts it) on what it really means to be a woman today. It features actress Lauren Hutton through to transgender model Hari Nef, among others, being real and being powerful in their own individual ways – winning in the board room, manspreading on the subway, you name it.

Then you’ve got Georg Jensen (albeit a Danish design house), which recently unveiled a spot called You Can Never Be Too Much You, which similarly shows how capable women are. Starring award winning director Susanne Bier, Motocross rider Behnaz Shafiei, world champion boxer Cecilia Brækhus, award winning comedian Sarah Kendall, and the world’s best female chef Dominique Crenn, it pushes back against the idea that being too loud or strong or provocative are negative traits. Again, they’re not, after all, seen that way for men. Sound like a portrayal of the candidates in question? I’d say so.

Even Netflix recently nodded to powerful women – highlighting its leading actresses in a spot called “She Rules” that aired during the Emmys this year. “Optimistic, fearless, brave, strong and relentless – long may we reign,” the voiceover narrates. A follow-up social spot mimics and counters the sort of elegant behaviours expected from women in society with another series of badass characters.

None of those, even in the storytelling around them, directly acknowledge the woman bidding for the top job in the US, though it could be assumed they relate to it. That’s not an unusual move pre-election of course, with the majority of brands keeping a neutral stance during a race to rather ride the wave of association once the winner is announced (see Obama as a prime example).

The question in this instance, given the potentially historical ground it’s covering, is whether brands may have willingly associated themselves more directly had the contest been a more positive one?

Never before has an election felt quite so divisive and vitriolic. No surprise then brands are opting to play it safe and keep any sort of connection truly at arm’s length.

There have however been endorsements by individual business leaders and a handful of companies. One of the most significant for Clinton came from Vogue magazine. “Vogue has no history of political endorsements. Editors in chief have made their opinions known from time to time, but the magazine has never spoken in an election with a single voice. Given the profound stakes of this one, and the history that stands to be made, we feel that should change,” read its post about it. It referenced her experience in foreign policy and her support of gun control legislation all the way through to LGBTQ rights, immigration reform, women’s rights and health care, as key reasons.

That reference to “the profound stakes of this one” and the “history that stands to be made” were seemingly not just being about a powerful woman running the country, but the need to keep Trump out. “For all the chaos and unpredictability and sometimes appalling spectacle of this election season, the question of which candidate deserves to be president has never been a difficult one,” it added. “Two words give us hope: Madam President. Women won the vote in 1920. It has taken nearly a century to bring us to the brink of a woman leading our country for the first time.” It speaks of Clinton leading an optimistic, forward-looking and modern America.

And therein lies the positivity for Tuesday, November 8. As my friend and start-up founder, Carl Martin, tweeted this weekend: “We talk a lot about the fear of what happens if Trump wins. But man, imagine the monumental positive shift that happens if Clinton [does].”

Indeed, just imagine.

For one thing, that wave of messaging around female empowerment will never have known such a ripe time to be powered forward. It will need to be done well by brands to feel authentic in the noise of what follows, but expect a flurry if it does.

A woman is on the cusp of leading gender equality from the front. Now we just need American women at large to go out, vote and actually get her there. Not just because she’s a woman, but we should certainly be celebrating the fact she is.

By Rachel Arthur

Rachel Arthur is Editor-in-Chief of Current Daily, the leading news source for fashion, retail and innovation, and the co-host of its weekly Innovators podcast. She otherwise serves as Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Current Global, a transformation consultancy driving growth within fashion luxury and retail. By background she is an award-winning business journalist and consultant, contributing to titles including Wired, Forbes and Business of Fashion.

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