Commentary

Marketing Ban Bossy: What Went Wrong And Why We Need To Ask Girls What They Want

I am an unabashed fan of Sheryl Sandberg's and am awed by the impact her Lean In movement has had on women in the white-collar workforce. So, when I first saw the Ban Bossy campaign on my way to work last Monday, I hopped on board with thumbs aflutter -- gleefully pledging and posting to the social trifecta before boarding my subway.

On the 22-minute ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan, the campaign’s logo (a slashed circle over the word bossy) fomented and took a different, decidedly grim shape in my mind. By the time I ascended the subway steps at Union Square, my zeal had capitulated to a subtle dread and a strong sense that “Ban Bossy” was perhaps the inverse of an awesome ad campaign.

The heart of the Ban Bossy campaign is tough to dispute. Sandberg argues persuasively and with ample data that being labeled “bossy” inhibits the development of leadership qualities in young girls who fear being seen as overly ambitious, aggressive or uncooperative. The campaign also focuses on the fact that “bossy” is disproportionately used to describe women and girls -- while those same characteristics are lauded and encouraged in boys and men. 

Ban Bossy garnered widespread awareness within a week’s time. In this sense, it is a wildly successful marketing campaign. The earned media, social propagation and individual advocacy are enviable to those of us who toil to produce a “share” on Facebook. However, a social sentiment analysis of all that magic media will show that much of the noise is negative. Many thought leaders enjoyed a week of easy target practice, ranting at various decibels about how wrong and hypocritical they believed the Ban Bossy campaign to be. Also hard to disagree with.  

The Platform

At face value, Ban Bossy has all the trappings of a killer campaign. The mission strikes emotional chords through a combination of well-researched data points and firsthand testimonials. Ban Bossy also enjoys loud backing from A-list celebrities, deep-pocketed corporate sponsors and public leaders like Condoleezza Rice. It also marks the one-year anniversary since Lean In was published.

Ban Bossy also has a figurehead in Sandberg, who knows a thing or two about the dynamics of social media. The campaign’s video, featuring Beyoncé, Jennifer Garner and Jane Lynch, includes easy sharing features and lots of social currency. The Web site has depth and utility, offering leadership tips and worksheets for parents, teachers, managers and girls. It encourages social sharing across multiple pages and urges users to pledge on Facebook that they will refrain from using the word. As of last week, Huffington Post reported more than 100,000 people had already signed the Ban Bossy pledge.

The Message

Unfortunately, Ban Bossy’s call to action is an epic turnoff. It sounds dated, confused and kinda early-feminist bossy. It is counterintuitive to launch a campaign aimed at acceptance with a call to action that abolishes something else. Not to mention that word bans, in general, don’t work: They’re ignorable at best. At worst, they can act as fodder for detractors.  

Other points where Ban Bossy falls short:

  • “Boss” is the ultimate descriptor of cool. Urban Dictionary describes the word as “Incredibly Awesome; miraculous; great.”   
  • Many influential artists, like Tina Fey, have begun to reclaim the bossy label. Wouldn’t embracing the word and drawing from the desirable qualities of “boss” be a more inclusive platform to build upon?
  • Bossy is a complicated word. Although it can carry negative connotations regarding pushiness, it also indicates that a person is behaving like a leader. Girls grab this baton more often than boys during adolescence. Isn’t that kinda rad? 

Media Backlash

Despite a great setup, Ban Bossy has failed well-meaning collaborators with a message of prohibition. 

Already, Sandberg’s stance is being challenged outside the opinion columns with the #BeBossy movement, which features support from Nicki Minaj as a celebrity endorser. Unfortunately, this divides rather than unites the supporters of female rights.

One caveat: If the goal was to stimulate conversation by provoking outrage and dissent, well done, Sandberg. Well done. 

The Awesome

Now here’s why I love the effort put forth again and again by Sheryl Sandberg to quell her pre-teen demons: Sandberg sparks complex conversations about behavior and perception, despite making herself conspicuously vulnerable. In the days since Ban Bossy’s debut, parents are discussing the language we use to encourage our daughters. A quick and unrepresentative study of social media indicates that parents have strong opinions on whether to raise their girls Bossy Proud or Bossy Banned (my circles go for the former). We are talking about this more than we were a week ago, and the conversations are awesome.

What’s at stake is much larger, more insidious and impenetrable than playground taunts: for example, power structure and corporate inequities, gender dynamics, the ongoing wage gap and access to affordable healthcare are just a few of the issues affecting women today. While pre-teen girls are not ready to address these problems, they are pretty comfortable broaching the topic of bossiness. Ban Bossy gives parents and educators a gateway to discuss social behavior and self-esteem with young girls, while learning from their counterparts across the country who are doing the same. 

Ban Bossy also opens the door to fascinating insights about how kids perceive leadership and intimidation or oppression. “Bossy” is a complicated word and may include all of these elements -- both positive and negative. I was/am often called “bossy” as a girl/adult. I earned the label because I was endeavoring to achieve a group goal and sometimes, admittedly, because I was endeavoring to manipulate a situation in my own favor. I certainly was not always carrying my best feminist torch while telling my peers what to do. I didn’t like the label. It made me feel distinctly un-cute and unlikable. It was, however, far better to be called “bossy” than “mean” or “manipulative” -- although “bossy” includes shades of both. Regardless, I learned to work with it, to accept the inherent conflict in trying to get my way while also trying to be liked. I accepted that I had to give something up to gain something else. These concessions are not just for females. 

Where Should We Go From Here?

Ask your daughter or niece (ideally between 6 and 12 years old) if anyone she knows is bossy. She’ll probably reference a girl or woman (or a few). Probe deeper to see what qualities drive the perception of bossiness. I’m finding an amazing mix. Ask her if she knows any bossy boys. Then ask a boy the same questions. You may find a mix of distaste and awe.  

As a lover of women’s media, a mother of two and a bossy girl, I want to talk to girls about this topic because I want them to learn to counter their detractors who crush their goals. Their critics won’t go away with the language. They will still have to cope with the hurt when someone seeks to demoralize them for earning a promotion, winning an election, scoring a seat on the Board of Directors or snagging a high title in the zombie apocalypse.  

While we have Katniss from "The Hunger Games" and Tris from "Divergent" to thank for celebrating girls' physical strength and agility with weaponry, our girls deserve the brains and the brawn. They need the tools to combat the words that hurt them. I want them to wield their pens, gavels or machetes with the confidence, conviction and the knowledge that they rule.

So, Ban Bossy should fire its agency, but everyone else should celebrate the conversation -- and the bossy girl at its helm. 

What do you think? Connect with me at @samskey7 and use #BossyIs to tell us what young girls and boys in your life think about bossy.

Is Being Bossy Good or Bad? from SheKnows on Vimeo.

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