As a result of the extensive reach of online mass media, political movements and public awareness of diverse social issues are becoming more widespread in society. There are infinite possibilities for the public to inform themselves on eminent global topics. Not only is this a way for people to educate themselves, it also provides an opportunity for organizations to raise money and for political groups to advocate for legislative change. This however paves the way for brands to exploit this current spread of online political enlightenment by engaging in performative activism in their advertisements and marketing schemes in an effort to seem socially aware.
As people around the world learn more about the feminist movement and the multitude of issues women around the world face, brands and organization take this as an opportunity to market their products in this contemporary climate of ‘wokeness’. They aim to stand out from other brands with their political statements, filling their advertisements with feminist affirmations that are vague enough to still fit into their aesthetic, yet make the brand appear progressive and enlightened.
It felt like wearing that shirt was a political statement itself.
In the mid 2010’s, H&M released a t-shirt with the print “Feminism: the radical notion that women are people”. I remember seeing many teenage girls wearing this t-shirt on the streets; it was cute, I wanted it too at age 13. At the time, it felt like wearing that shirt was a political statement itself, like wearing it to my 8th-grade class would be making a real impact on the feminist movement. However, in hindsight, the only real impact I would’ve made was fattening the wallets of the H&M corporate office.
The slogan on the shirt, “women are people”, shouldn’t be a mind-blowing revelation either. Although the sarcasm is part of the perceived quirkiness of the shirt, looking back on it, H&M had simply used their knowledge on the rapid spread of feminist support online as a tool to sell their clothing. At the time the shirt was released, the “HeForShe” movement had just recently been formed by UNWomen, and Emma Watson’s inspiring speech at the movement’s launch had gone viral. Furthermore, Malala Yousafzai was in the spotlight as she received the Nobel Peace Prize just a month after Emma Watson’s speech. Therefore, there had been extensive media coverage about the feminist movement at that time. Google searches for the term ‘feminism’ spiked between 2014 and 2016, the same time frame that this shirt was being sold in. However, none of H&M’s profits were donated to any feminist organizations and I’m sure this t-shirt did little to progress the feminist movement.
What exactly was H&M doing?
Although H&M has a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) code of conduct that seems helpful in ensuring adequate social and environmental principles, they fail to properly acknowledge workplace harassment and violence towards women.
A report made to the International Labour Organization in 2018 showed that not only did H&M pay their garment workers less than a minimum wage, women also experienced workplace violence and unfair treatment at many of H&M’s factories. Women were reported to have been fired solely for being pregnant, forced to work overtime and were repeatedly yelled at or even physically assaulted by factory employers. The H&M garment workers are primarily women, over 80% of workers at factories in Bangladesh are female, for example. Although H&M has a Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) code of conduct that seems helpful in ensuring adequate social and environmental principles, they fail to properly acknowledge workplace harassment and violence towards women, which is so prevalent for H&M’s female garment workers. This highlights the fact that the company chooses to capitalize on the feminist ‘trend’ in order to sell their products, where their actual efforts to support feminist movements or even ensure safety and security for their female workers, are kept at a minimum.
Using simplified statements such as ‘women are people’ in marketplace feminism creates the perception that feminism only aims to reach gender equality through achieving these ambiguous slogans. In reality, feminism deals with deep-rooted issues surrounding paradigms about women, laws regarding their autonomy or opportunities for receiving education. The actual goals of the political movement are overlooked as it’s easier to market a cool slogan on a shirt than it is to confront the efforts it takes to reach gender equality.
Audi preaches about equal pay
Another company that incorporated feminist messages into their advertisements was Audi in 2017. In the advertisement, they made a clear statement that America should aim to provide equal pay for men and women, displaying a young girl beating a group of boys in a soapbox race. This was of course accompanied by an emotional song and the voiceover of her father in the background contemplating whether he should explain to his daughter that in this world women are seen as less important than men. The controversy that arose over this advertisement was that Audi themselves were exposed for not having paid their male and female employees equally, and on top of that, had an executive board consisting of only men. Although Audi preaches about gender equality in their advertisement to promote their car, they don’t actively make an effort to support women in the workplace themselves. This selective ‘activism’ in their advertisement therefore seems to be performative in an effort to appear like a progressive company that supports gender equality.
The gravity of the issues faced by countless women is diminished by creating catchy, commercialised feminist slogans to sell instead of actively aiming to achieve gender equality in their workplace or aiding feminist organizations.
Brands continuing to take advantage of the current political climate as a marketing tactic does not result in women being edged closer to equality. The gravity of the issues faced by countless women is diminished by creating catchy, commercialised feminist slogans to sell instead of actively aiming to achieve gender equality in their workplace or aiding feminist organizations. Yes, in the broadest sense of its definition, women of course, as any other cohort, want to be seen as people; but this is not on the list of tangible goals that feminist movements aim to achieve. Ultimately, brands using the rhetoric of ‘empowerment’ and ‘women power’ to push their products do not contribute to the feminist movement but profit from the current politically conscious online climate instead.
Cover: Claudio Purzlbaum