By now, the “we-girls-can-do-anything” approach has so saturated the culture that the crazy notion of empowering women through their yogurt seems so commonplace it’s almost quaint. Toronto agency John St. created the video as part of the “Agency of the Year” event at Strategy Magazine (a Canadian pub).
The Toronto shop seems to have a genius for producing just this kind of trend-parsing parody videos. Previous contenders have even won Gold Lions at Cannes, which amounts to some pretty powerful self-promotion.
Of course, there has always plenty of hypocrisy to go around in advertising, but I’d like to think this film makes an important distinction: it’s lampooning the clueless, copycat would-be femvertisers now latching onto the latest shiny thing in order to sell stuff, rather than making fun of the idea of feminism itself. (Well, OK, it does go there a bit, too.)
The point, made both broadly and with subtlety, is that some of this advertising is just as shaming, guilt-inducing, and manipulative toward women as it was in the big bad “Mad Men” era; the difference is that now it comes with a pseudo-female-power twist.
Throughout, the play on language is really funny: A female exec explains at the top of the film that the Jane St. agency (just opened, to be the pinkified offshoot of John St.) has changed the protocol for advertising to women, from “exploiting their insecurities to empowering their incredibilities.” The staff explains that Jane St. s “proactive in identifying tomorrow’s insecurities today.” (“If they’re not crying, they’re not buying,” says a sign on the wall.)
And by the end, a male account exec brings it all home with “There is no limit to the amount of empowerment we can empower.”
One of the most outré visual bits involves making fun of a strategy brief, complete with a serious-sounding, snappy acronym. (Real live agencies routinely do this to make the work seem less made up, and more official.) In this case, the acronym is C-Litt. The joke is that the male creative confides to the camera that it’s tricky, and sometimes even he has problems locating it. On the infographic, floating all around this pink, um, pudendal illustration, are words that point out women’s hidden insecurities. My favorite is “weak nail beds.”
But the most NSFO part comes right at the beginning, when we’re taken into a film shoot, complete with a respectfully quiet set and a photographer with a man bun. They are actually styling the young model’s overgrowth of pubic hair -- it’s grotesquely funny.
It’s reminiscent of the Dove “evolution ad” which also opens on a film set with a stylist attending to a young female model. What was most Dove-like, (and maybe even vicious) was the last bit, where operatives go into middle schools to talk to girls about their insecurities. Egged on by the producer in the black truck outside, a female producer is told to ask a 7th grader (or so) about her mustache. The little girl feels above her lip, in despair, previously unaware that it was even an issue.
This reminded me of “Patches,” the most recent Dove Campaign for Real Beauty, which was so bad it really could have been its own parody. Women were filmed receiving arm patches that they were told would boost self-esteem, were recorded getting more confident, and then told it was a lie.
Many of the women burst into tears -- less at the idea that they themselves are “enough” (we don’t need no stinkin’ patches!”) and more because that they had been roundly humiliated, I think.
That was about the seventh iteration of a truly important, groundbreaking (and later hugely imitated) campaign that originated at Ogilvy/Toronto about 10 years ago. Nancy Vonk was one of the creators of the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty.(She is now co-founder of SWIM.) But the legitimate point, according to Vonk, is “Too many brands bring up the problem, which is very real -- then sort of leave it at that. Sucks to be you, women. No follow-through, no meaningful action.”
Certainly, Dove paved the way with follow-through programs, including working with The Girl Scouts. And even though critics assailed the company for the inherent hypocrisy of selling self-esteem via anti-cellulite cream, it sure improved on the same old, same old. The billboard campaign was the first to show all different women — different skin tones, different body types, and some even fat! -- in their skivvies, all beautiful. And it was powerfully loved.
Similarly, I feel I have to point out that another campaign in this now-maligned genre deserves major kudos. In a social experiment led by documentarian Lauren Greenfield, the feminine products brand Always asked “What does it mean to run/jump/fight like a girl?” The mission was to redefine the now derogatory "like a girl" phrase as an expression of strength.
Through Greenfield’s casting and framing of the girls, they were the very embodiments of non-sarcasm. Rather, they were beautiful, and full of hope -- especially when they darted across the screen, running like lightning.
The best coda, though, is that the phrase really did get redefined in the vernacular culture. When President Obama hosted the U.S. women’s soccer team at the White House, he said that the team taught children an important lesson: "Playing like a girl means you're a badass."
#LikeaGirl won a Grand Prix at Cannes, and also scored a Glass Lion, the first to win that new category, introduced last year, to honor work that breaks gender stereotypes. Some objected to the prize on the notion that it’s somewhat separatist — that women don’t need their own version of the award.
But according to Cindy Gallop, this year’s jury chair, and the founder of #Ifwerantheworld.com and makelovenotporn.com, “It’s not about 'wildly empowered women being wildly empowered' which is satirized beautifully in the film.”
“Jane St. makes precisely the point I make: that it's not about creating yet more artificial constructs that tell women how they should be, but simply about reflecting the world as it really is.”
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go potentiate my incredibilities.