Beware of empowertising!

Beware of empowertising, when companies use feminist imagery to sell their products.

A while ago I posted my big love for this H&M commercial. You know, the one featuring happy women who eat french fries, have bodies that differ in shape and size, body hair, and varying private parts. Hooray! Women!

Then I came across the article Don't Fall for the New H&M Campaign, and realized that in my gushing about the ad itself, I neglected to mention my deep ambivalence towards H&M as a company and the fact that I generally don't shop there.

Right. So. Let's address this, shall we?

Empowertising. It's a thing: it's when companies use feminism to help sell their products. Think the Dove Campaign for Real Beauty or the Always "Like a Girl" ads that promote empowering ideals, sometimes with little or no mention of actual products.

This would be all well and good, except that these companies aren't necessarily actually good for women.

Take H&M: the aforementioned article details evidence for all sorts of complaints against the company, from exploiting its supply staff to firing women because they are pregnant. Plus, there's the deep hypocrisy of a company with such body positive ads barely stocking larger sized clothing. That's right: not all the women in the ad could even buy clothes at H&M. Then there are the non-women-specific environmental issues and the impact of the "fast fashion" movement on waste and factory workers' conditions.

So what now? 

On one hand, these companies are clearly just capitalizing on the feminist zeitgeist. It's currently popular to look like you care about women, so they are advertising as if they do. They aren't actually changing any of their policies or products to reflect meaningful empowerment in the lives of women: they are tricking us into associating them with feminism. That's it.

On the other hand, every single company is going to advertise their wares, and while I would rather a company that advertises itself based on feminist principles actually be feminist in its operations, I would also rather see more feminist imagery out there than continued objectification and subjugation.

I believe that what we see in our general culture shapes our expectations of the world: the people and situations we see reflected to us over and over again become seen as the norm. On a psychological level, this checks out. The more easily we can remember something the more prevalent or true we think it is. This is why we all think there are more mass murderers out there than there really are: we can easily remember stories (fictional and non) about horrific mass murders.

So these companies, these terrible, hypocritical companies, are actually doing something helpful. By creating mainstream advertising based on principles of body positivity, acceptance, empowerment, and diversity, they are shifting our cultural perception of what is normal for women.

Still, that doesn't mean we have to give them our money. Just because H&M made a killer ad doesn't mean we should buy their clothes. We could write them a letter saying how much we appreciated the ad, and how disappointing it is that those values aren't reflected in their stores and practices, though.


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