Our August Technology Salon in New York City (TSNYC) was a stimulating and deep discussion on whether ‘girl advertising’ detracts from girls empowerment. The topic surfaced after a Facebook conversation about the rise in commercials about girls and women’s empowerment such as Always’ “Like a Girl,” Verizon’s “Inspire her Mind,” and Pantene’s “Stop Saying Sorry.” There are mixed feelings about what these ads accomplish for girls and women, and whether their commercially driven motivations are actually helping to achieve gains for girls in the US and elsewhere.
Some of the key points raised at the Salon included:
Participatory media vs slick, overproduced ads. When it’s participatory media with children and youth making choices about what is being said, shot and edited, it’s one thing. It feels authentic, said one Salon participant. “But the current spate of ads tend to show a very ‘produced’ girl, wearing make-up, feeding into stereotypes about beauty, talking to a screen and selling a product or a brand.” These ads may feel inspiring to people watching, but are they actually ‘empowering?’ The underlying message of many of these ads for girls is still often sex, beauty and/or sexual attractiveness.
Surface rather than deeper change. One discussant pointed out that companies making these empowering girl ads on the one hand are making misogynist NFL ads on the other. If a company really wants to do something for girls, it should be a holistic effort that permeates all its advertising, she felt, not just a slick ad for girls and business as usual with everything else. Making girls feel better about themselves is one thing, but it’s not enough. Girls may say they prefer ‘Goldiblox’ to ‘Barbie’ but the toys are still plastic consumables, and they are still pink, as one participant noted. “Girls need to build confidence at a deeper level,” said a youth participant. “Rather than just providing a one-way ticket to solving a simple problem, we need to go deeper, because the problem does not have just a single cause.” In addition, as other participants called out, much of the change being pushed by ads is shallow change, when what is really needed is systemic change. “Have you really addressed structural injustices and inequities with these one-off actions and campaigns? Do these simple narratives really help? Or are they a distraction?”
Are we conflating empowerment and consumerism? These girl-focused ads encourage girls that we work with to spend money that they don’t have, commented one Salon participant. Are we supporting girls’ assimilation into corporate consumerism or are we trying to change the status quo for girls who have been traditionally left out? “Girls we work with have issues with lack of access to housing, education, a living wage. These ads encourage them to spend money that goes back to corporations, and we don’t know what the corporations are doing with it. Are they supporting militarization of the police? Are they lobbying to cut sex education or planned parenthood funding?” Often the topics addressed in these ads, she noted, are the tip of the iceberg. “We see ads about teen pregnancy, but we don’t see work that addresses its underlying causes.” Addressing underlying causes, many in the room felt, would be the truly empowering work.
Higher visibility of girls’ issues is unintentionally causing problems. The increased presence of girls in the media and in NGO advocacy campaigns was initially very helpful, but some commented that it is becoming a problem. “Donors think that there is a higher level of investment in programs that directly impact on girls, which is not necessarily the case. Often the investment is made in branding or social media rather than in concrete programming that supports girls with real assets and skills.” This has meant that some donors are reluctant to fund programs for girls, because they think the topic is over-saturated. In reality, there is a lot of talk and media but not enough on-the-ground support.
Being a girl in 2014…. In addition to the funding challenges, some research has shown that in the US, girls as young as 7 and 8 feel that they “cannot drop the ball on anything now.” The empowering visions of girls can make them feel that they are expected to do and be everything, and to solve all the world’s problems on top of it all. At the same time, on social media such as Facebook research shows that girls tend to downplay their intelligence and up-play their fun and sexiness, because media bombards them with messages that on top of being successful at everything, they are also supposed to be cute, carefree, and sexy.
What about boys and men? The higher visibility around girls can lead to a marginalization of boys and men from gender work, commented some Salon participants, as it sets up a boy vs girl dynamic. Though for advertising, binaries tend to work, in the wider scheme of things, these issues are very complex and binaries are not helpful. If we are looking for change an empowerment, boys and men also need to be part of the equation and gender should be a more holistic approach, not only focused on girls. “Working with both boys and girls is more empowering for everyone,” said one participant. When boys feel threatened by girls it just creates more conflict. “We need to empower boys by teaching them about girls and gender dynamics,” because both boys and girls are affected by gender stereotypes.
Ads by their very nature simplify complex issues. Ads are simplified because of how they need to be packaged, especially now in the day of social media, as one of the youth Salon participants pointed out. “People take a simplified message and create their own meaning out of it, without really understanding the complexities. Then they share the ad around and feel like they’ve done their part. They think an ad is fully informing them and this is dangerous. These ads don’t really feel empowering for me, it’s just an upswing in ads for teenaged girls and in media targeted at my age group. The ads are just one more thing that’s shared on Facebook. So it’s like someone else packages ideas for you, you share them, and you move on.” Another participant agreed, yet added that ads can open the door to a conversation about something larger that can be followed with more nuanced discussions.
Ads are ads. They are not CSR. Companies are not really interested in empowering girls with these ads, pointed out one participant. These are not Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) ads; they are marketing ads. Another participant added that “many of these campaigns are run by very smart, high-powered women. They do want to see high-powered versions of girls, and they also want to sell their products or their brands.” The income from the ads does not go into social programs; it’s revenue, noted another participant. CSR managers then have the job of advocating internally so that some of the revenue does go towards these types of causes, but it’s not a given. CSR staff work to encourage corporate leadership to allocate some of the funding into programs that have an impact on girls’ lives. Consumers should also be doing their homework and finding out what is happening with different campaigns. Companies want to make employees, customers, and investors/their boards happy. Consumers should pressure corporations to do more than just ads, and to do something that reaches farther. Corporate mandates are totally separate from Foundation mandates, as one participant pointed out. “It’s up to people like us who care about these issues to bridge the gap, to have these conversations in the board room, with management and leadership, with PR staff.” “How can we increase transparency about what these companies invest in,” asked one participant. This is important not only for CSR budgets and ‘girl issues’ but for companies overall.
Starting with the delivery system is a problem. Rather than starting with a solution – an ad, a technology, a delivery system – we should start by picking the group or population where we want to make a difference and then decide what is the best way to go about it, commented one Salon participant. “What does success look like for girls? What do girls themselves what to do, to be? Empower is a vague word. If you substituted ‘farmer’ for ‘girl’ you’d never get away with some of the mystical pronouncements that we hear now about girls. Do you ever hear people saying ‘Ah, farmers… I just feel so alive and so inspired when I meet them! They can change the world!’ Probably not. And much of the rhetoric around girls is just inspiring language that doesn’t actually help girls to achieve their goals. We’ve swallowed the language of the current delivery system. We now measure success in terms of retweets, likes, social media campaigns and putting out manuals and guides. We need to push back and ensure that the money goes to girl programs on the ground.”
Using media for behavior change is a science. Others, however, felt that there was a role for behavior change communication (BCC) done in a scientific way and with solid measurement of impact. Activism and advocacy are different approaches than behavior change, commented a participant. Likes and tweets can be measures of activism, awareness and advocacy. But for behavior change, we need to go deeper. Well-targeted behavior change communication starts with strong, solid research into what drives behavior. There are different categories – knowledge is the first one. But most times, it’s not lack of knowledge that prevents people from changing behavior. More often, it’s attitudes, social norms, and lack of social support and self-efficacy. A well-defined campaign should isolate what will make change and the communication piece should speak to that very specific change. It’s also critical to understand the audience and what will move them to action – for some girls it will be a strong aspirational role model, for others it will be real-life women and girls. Formative research helps us understand what will work with a particular audience.
How are we measuring impact? People are measuring the number of tweets from the general public and calling it impact, rather than measuring indicators of real change for girls themselves. “Attention is being placed on media impressions, tweets, hashtags,” said one discussant. “We measure hollow metrics about the giver rather than measuring the impact on the ground, on the lives of the people we say we are supporting or helping.” She went on to cite some very well known campaigns where the only impact reports were media hits, but no available reports track what happened with funds raised, or with ‘awareness’ and how it translated into actual change. “Is it enough to show women in empowering ads,” asked one participant. “There is a disconnect between advocacy and messaging and measuring impact,” said another person. Within organizations, some digital teams are very good at showcasing to management how many Facebook likes and tweets they get, and this distracts leadership from looking at more impactful efforts on the ground. It allows these shallow campaigns to take funding away from the more solid programmatic efforts that work directly with girls and their families and communities to address underlying causes, and to build skills and assets and enabling environments for girls to succeed.
Equality vs liberation. Boiling complicated intersectional analyses down to an ad that can only carry a single message is complicated and having an equal number of male and female board members does nothing for women who are not operating at these high levels, said one participant. “I have so much I want to say about all this!” she added. “Where are the transformational campaigns? None of our organizations or brands or corporations has enough money individually to do a campaign that would really create structural, systemic change. Even the Ms. Endowment has only $35 million and it’s not enough. We are all competing in the market. How can we collaborate and converse with one another to do something bigger and better. How can we work together to really shift things? What if we came together and only took money from corporations that did something like have a certain percentage of women on the board plus ads that show positive images plus funnel funding into good programs on the ground? How can we hold companies accountable? How are we measuring success?” Another person commented “Many corporations feel that we are lucky to have their money.” She wondered how we can build strength in our numbers and work together as a more solid front.
It’s not one or the other…. In closing, one participant pointed out that there were multiple conversations happening in the room, because those of us working on gender and girl issues are fighting the good fight on multiple fronts. “Work on the ground is one thing. Work at the global policy/advocacy level is something else. And then there is work with the private sector and the public as well,” she said. “We all have different strengths. How can we connect in more meaningful discussions on it all? How can we flag issues that need consideration so that we are all contributing to a wider goal?” Further conversation and joint work could help to address some of the challenges that those in the room are facing. Many participants wished for a follow up conversation to take the ideas a step further, and the topic of engaging boys and men was brought up as something that needs more work.
So, do girl ads detract from girls’ empowerment? According to the majority of Salon participants, yes, in many cases they do. But there is potential to integrate these kinds of ads into wider, more effective efforts to push for systemic change that involves both boys and girls, works at various levels, and demands greater corporate accountability and better measurement of results.
What should advertisers do, then? [Adding this today (Aug 26) after a request for some recommendations for advertisers]
- Be consistent. Look inwardly. Don’t be all ‘girl empowering’ on the one hand and then be all misogynist on the other hand with everything else that you do.
- If you’re making revenue from girl empowerment ads, then do something with the money that actually supports programming that is proven (evidence-based) to make a real difference to girls in their daily lives or support policy work that help girls advance.
- If you’re really about girls’ empowerment and want to work on behavior changes that benefit girls at a widespread level, then look at some of the behavior change science approaches that can help you to plan campaigns that get people to move beyond a) feeling inspired and b) gaining knowledge to c) actually acting and changing their behavior….
- A combined effort that works at multiple levels (ads that are well researched and directed, policy changes that support girls and women, and work on the ground that provides girls with skills and helps them build assets) would be a better way to approach girls’ empowerment, if indeed advertisers do want to help empower girls.
- Stop commodifying everything and putting more pressure on girls and women to be and do everything. Use some of the power and expertise of creating and motivating people through brands and advertising to support social change that has nothing to do with buying more stuff.
For more background reading, see our crowdsourced list of ‘girl ads’ and commentary about girl ads.
Thanks to those who contributed to the Salon topic idea and preparation (especially Eva Kaplan, Karen Cirillo, Clare Ramirez-Raftree, Lina Srivastava and Greta Knutzen) and to ThoughtWorks for their generous hosting!
If you’d like to attend a future Salon in New York, Washington DC, San Francisco, London, Toronto/ Ottawa or Nairobi, sign up here to get on our email list!