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Girl Power Marketing Grown Up

Older Millennials grew up with Girl Power messaging, and now brands are appealing to them as adults by providing pop-feminist marketing, and focusing on the ways that women are held back in their everyday lives.

There have been endless discussions of how Millennial women have been encouraged and positioned to be more successful than their male counterparts. These were the girls who were paid attention to, who grew up when Title IX was a well-established reality, who were told that Girl Power was an important movement, even in their pop songs. Now that the youngest of these Girl Power-fueled Millennials have grown up, it seems that brands are maturing the message to reach them. This year, we’ve seen a steady stream of female-empowerment-focused marketing that is clearly intended to appeal to the generation. But rather than providing the more general pro-girl messages that they grew up with (or the “You’ve come a long way” branding of decades past), the most successful of these campaigns spotlight the ways that women are still held back, positioning the brands as champions of female consumers.

In February, CoverGirl released a campaign following the trend of “feminism-as-marketing.” Using the hashtag #GirlsCan, the spot featured Millennial-friendly female celebs talking about all the things that women are told they can’t do, encouraging viewers to be courageous and do everything they are told they can’t. 

More recently, we’ve seen some grown up girl power marketing efforts gain more traction. Pantene continued some previous efforts to show small ways that women are subtly discouraged to shine with their “Not Sorry” spot, which began airing last month. The commercial asks why women are always apologizing and shows how differently they would appear if they stopped using the word. (Hint: they look more confident and strong.) The ad has currently been viewed on YouTube over 3.5 million times. Verizon also released a pro-girl spot in June. Their “Inspire Her Mind” ad shows a young girl growing up and showing an interest in science only to be subtly discouraged by her parents along the way. The commercial then shares some startling statistics, telling viewers that 66% of 4th grade girls say they like science and math, but only 18% of all college engineering majors are female. The commercial is part of a larger effort the Verizon Foundation has begun to encourage kids, particularly girls, to get more involved with science, math, and coding, and “to #InspireHerMind and encourage more girls to get involved with high-tech STEM fields.”

Always might have released the most successful feminism-as-marketing ad yet this year with “Like a Girl,” a commercial that has been so widely shared that it has been viewed on YouTube over 26 million times since being posted on June 26th. The ad tackles the idea of “like a girl” being an insult, asking “What does it mean to do something ‘like a girl’?” Older participants mimic running, fighting, and throwing “like a girl” as weak, comical, and silly. Then younger girls are asked to act out the same things, and the spot shows them running as fast as they can, throwing with confidence, and play fighting with power and passion. The ad has been all over social media feeds, and sparking conversation on blogs and news sites. 

While many of these ads and campaigns hit the mark, it should be noted that the tactic is a tricky one, and some have found themselves facing criticism for their approach. In March, Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In organization released a celebrity studded PSA in partnership with the Girl Scouts of America to spread the message that, “by middle school, girls are less interested in leadership than boys” thanks in part to being afraid of being labelled as “bossy.” The celeb-studded Ban Bossy campaign aimed to encourage leadership and confidence in girls, stop the use of “bossy” as an insult and inspire them to “be the boss.” All these goals were initially seen as positives, but the conversation about Ban Bossy quickly turned negative. The L.A. times called the campaign “wrongheaded, ” and The Cut’s Ann Friedman wrote, “It’s counterintuitive, and it makes feminists look like thought police rather than the expansive forward-thinkers we really are.” While the Ban Bossy pledge site is still up and the campaign continues, it has not been in the spotlight of late. Even the popular Like a Girl ad has been criticized by some for not aligning with the brand’s actual products, and for being a “false and disingenuous” way to sell more tampons.

Don’t get us wrong, these messages of female-empowerment can be successful, and showing the small ways that young women are still held back is likely resonating because it aligns with the way that many Millennial women feel today. Though they are more educated than their male peers and better prepared for their first jobs, they still lag behind men in salary, and the perception of women in the workplace, and out of it in many cases, still has a significant way to go. For younger Millennials, these modernized Girl Power messages might be giving them a little of the pro-girl culture that the older members of their generation grew up with. So brands aren’t unwise in promoting female-positive messaging, but any brand contemplating joining the discussion should proceed with caution: it has to be done well, and any half-hearted attempts or misguided wording could be attacked. Messaging isn’t enough—it has to be followed up with action and brands are less likely to be criticized if they clearly show how they are being a part of the solution, as Verizon is with their larger Inspire Her Mind efforts. This has also quickly become a crowded space, so anyone who wants to add to the pop-feminism marketing trend should be sure that their approach is a unique one.