Brand culture and commodity activism

A critical analysis of two advertising campaigns targeted towards young girls: Like A Girl by Always and Inspire Her Mind by Verizon

By Ingeborg Kjaerstad

likeagirl
(Always: Like A Girl, 2014)
inspire-her-mind-video
(Verizon: Inspire Her Mind, 2014)

 

Abstract

In June 2014, two video ads were launched to address the issue of how girls lose confidence and self-esteem somewhere during their important years of puberty. The videos went viral over social media, and were after few days seen by millions of people. The videos were each released as part of a campaign, by Always and Verizon, respectively. Both campaigns aimed to encourage people to recognise some of the ways young girls are spoken to, that contribute to their loss of confidence. When it is suggested that consumers can show social concern and take political stands, by purchasing products by specific brands, it is referred to as commodity activism. This paper examines how Always’ Like a girl campaign and Verizon’s Inspire her mind campaign are recent examples of commodity activism.

Introduction

Some decades ago, people would buy commodities because they needed them. They would logically choose the products that were supposed to be best, most value for money, most effective for their purpose, or otherwise the best suited for their need. There would be no larger meaning attached to buying the product.

Then, in the late 20th century and early 21st century, branding and advertising agencies have found it necessary to reach out to consumers in new ways, appealing to their emotions and social responsibility. People are now taking a stand each time they are choosing between a Pepsi or Coca; PC or a Mac; or if their cup of coffee is going to be vegan, Fairtrade, organic, ecological, or none of those. The act of taking a political stand through the consuming of brands is called commodity activism (Mukherjee & Banet-Weiser, 2012). This paper will explore the meaning of commodity activism and brand culture, through the analysis of two campaigns that both went viral during June 2014, and are examples of how people are encouraged to be activists through the consumption of commodities.

The campaigns chosen for analysis are Like a Girl by Always, Inspire Her Mind by Verizon. They both show concern about how young girls lose confidence during puberty, and are both stressing the need for change, encouraging consumers to participate in this. The campaigns will be introduced with illustrations and accounts of what they include, followed by an examination of the positive as well as the negative responses they received. In the end the two ads will be compared and discussed in relation to the context they were released in. Firstly, the terms brand culture and commodity activism will be presented.

Brand culture

Sarah Banet-Weiser defines brand as “the intersective between marketing, a product, and consumers� (2012, p. 4). Branding is then the method of attaching some symbolic meaning to a product; something more than the first and concrete meaning, but a larger, cultural and social narrative. An example of this is when someone chooses to consistently buy Coca Cola rather than Pepsi, not only (or even at all) because of the taste, but as a statement. Banet-Weiser argues that we are finding ourselves in a brand culture; which is when “these types of brand relationships have increasingly become cultural contexts for everyday living, individual identity, and affective relationships� (2012, p. 4).

Commodity activism

Banet-Weiser wrote that within brand culture in today’s neoliberal time, practices of social and political activism are reimagined into marketable commodities. This is what is called commodity activism. It refers to how marketers and advertisers use brands as lucrative opportunities for social activism, and the way social movements in turn use brands to launch political issues (Banet-Weiser, 2012).

Marita Sturken wrote in the foreword of Commodity activism from 2012 that commodity activism happens when brand culture, commodity culture, activism and humanitarianism are merged, and when seemingly contradicting pairs, like activism and consumerism, celebrity and humanitarianism, commodities and social resistance, and profit and politics, are seen with a new approach. Commodity activism takes the practices of social and political activism and reimagines it into marketable commodities within brand culture (Banet-Weiser, 2012). Mukherjee and Banet-Weiser explained that “within contemporary culture it is utterly unsurprising to participate in social activism by buying something� (Mukherjee & Banet-Weiser, 2012, p.1). They suggested that social action itself is becoming a marketable commodity (Mukherjee & Banet-Weiser, 2012).

Banet-Weiser has earlier written about Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, as a current example of commodity activism, and specifically commodity feminism, which is when feminist ideals are attached to products as a selling point. The videos that are part of Dove’s now ten year long campaign, and evolve around ‘real women’ showing ‘real beauty’ as opposed to styled and photo shopped misleading images of models, that are often seen in advertising, encourage consumers to act politically through consumer behaviour. Dove suggests that by establishing brand loyalty to Dove products, consumers can become part of the campaign and what it communicates (Banet-Weiser, 2012).

In 2013, Dara Persis Murray also conducted an examination of Dove’s Campaign for Real Beauty. She found that it “may reflect a social change in the relationship between corporations and audiences that carries perilous meanings for the future roles of feminists and practices of female citizenship in global consumer culture� (Murray, 2013, p. 84). Seen in the light of brand culture, commodity activism, and modern feminism, Dove’s campaign shares many similarities with Always’ Like a girl and Verizon’s Inspire her mind.

Always: Like A Girl

Always is a feminine care brand, owned by the American-based multinational consumer goods corporation Procter & Gamble. Campaign was directed by Lauren Greenfield for the advertising agency Leo Burnett (John & Swanson, 2014)

Always has identified that something happen to girls’ confidence when they hit puberty, and that it is partly society’s fault. “Using #LikeAGirl as an insult is a hard knock against any adolescent girl. And since the rest of puberty’s really no picnic either, it’s easy to see what a huge impact it can have on a girl’s self-confidence� (Always, 2014). Always decided to change “like a girl� to mean amazing things, through the campaign Like a girl, with a video as one of the highlights.

In the video, young women and men are asked to perform a selection of actions like a girl. “Show me what it looks like to run like a girl�, director Lauren Greenfield says, followed by solicitations to “fight like a girl� and “throw like a girl�. The men and women do feeble attempts to perform the actions, emphasising stereotypes of girls as weak and silly. Then, the same questions are asked to pre-pubescent girls, who respond by running, fighting and throwing with their best efforts. Always then asks the audience “When did doing something “like a girl� become an insult?�, followed by the statement that they would like to change this. In the end, the women from the beginning of the video are asked how they think using “like a girl� as an insult to girls aged between 10 and 12 have an effect on them, and they are asked if they would like to redo the actions they were asked to do earlier. The film finishes with a compilation of video clips of both the young and older girls performing actions like running, fighting and various sports, as themselves rather than with exaggerated silliness (Always, 2014).

Other parts of the campaign include an encouragement for girls and women to use the hashtag #LikeAGirl whenever they are doing something to be proud of, as seen in Figure 1. Always promises to display their favourite tweets using this hashtag on their web page (Always, 2014).

tweetlikeagirl
Figure 1 (Always, 2014)

Always also provide information about their other projects and collaborations linked to their campaign. These include a partnership with UNESCO to make sure more girls all around the world are getting education, a global program to inform girls about puberty and their menstrual cycles, and collaboration with Lean In and Girl Scouts of America to encourage girls to be leaders without getting the label «bossy», in a #BanBossy campaign (Always, 2014).

Response

The video released as a part of the campaign went viral within days, and had 31 million views after one week (Greenfield, 2014). As of 9 August 2014, the video had received close to 47 million views (Always, 2014). Numerous blogs and online newspapers and magazines praised the campaign. Roo Ciambriello from Adweek wrote that the ad was inspiring, and managed to change the meaning of the phrase “like a girl� to an expression of strength. She claimed it managed to raise a great discussion, and applauded Always’ focus on empowerment rather than beauty (Ciambriello, 2014).

A behavioural scientist from the University of Sydney, Dr Marc de Rosnay, was moved by the video, and said the video manages to expose an uncomfortable truth about stereotypes, show how we learn the meaning of words through socialisation, and that it “reveals the secrecy around the issue of girls’ development in societyâ€? (Low, 2014).

Although the campaign received greatly positive response, some journalists were sceptic. Emily Shire from The Daily Beast wrote that although it does sound great to change the meaning of the phrase ‘like a girl’, and help young girls grow self-confidence, the video is “shamelessly emotionally exploitative�, and does not seem to have much to do with the product. “If Always is going to peg a giant message about self-confidence without any actual mention of menstruation in the commercial, it seems somewhat deceptive� (Shire, 2014).

The Week, however, encouraged the use of subtlety: “No one even breathes the words ‘tampon’ or ‘pad’. (…) If mega corporations are willing to back-burner direct sales pitches of their precious products for an emotionally hooked message about these things that I deeply care about, well, I applaud them� (Hansen, 2014). Mashable points out that although Always is not advertising a specific product, the campaign is rather used as a brand builder, and it “seems to have struck a chord� (Stanley, 2014). Erin McNeill, founder of Media Literacy Now, said “Emotional stories in ads are not necessarily a problem�, and that advertisements are only exploitive if they target people who do not understand they are being advertised to; for example children (Hansen, 2014).

Nevertheless, McNeill also pointed out that however great it is to tell the story of women’s accomplishments, it also singles them out as different. “It’s the ‘girls can do it, too,’ problem. It’s accomplishments and women’s accomplishments in separate categories. Somehow we have to get to that point where it’s everyone’s accomplishments are valid on their own” (Hansen, 2014).

With videos like these, one can sometimes wonder what is sincere, and what is scripted. Alexia Dellner from Women’s Health claimed the video looked staged, but concluded with “anything that promotes gender equality is fine by us� (2014).

Verizon: Inspire Her Mind

Verizon Wireless provides wireless services for phones and computers, and is a business line under the American company Verizon Communications (Verizon, 2014). Verizon acknowledged that “66% out of 4th grade girls reported they like science and math, but by college, only 18% of engineering majors are female� and started the campaign Inspire Her Mind to encourage girls to pursue their love for science, technology, engineering and maths, sometimes referred to as STEM. The video released as part of the campaign was directed by Pam Thomas of Community Films, for the advertising and innovation agency AKQA, and was voiced by Girls Who Code founder Reshma Saujani (Monllos, 2014).

The film shows a young girl referred to as Sam/Sammy/Samantha, being curious about the world, exploring things she find in the nature, and showing interest in science. It starts with her being a young toddler, and continues with her growing gradually older. The parents, who are never shown, but are represented by voices, discourage Sam to pursue these interests, by saying things like “Sammy, sweetie, don’t get your dress dirty� and “Sam, honey, you don’t want to mess with that�. In the end of the film, the impact of the parents’ discouragement is shown, when the now teenage girl ignores a science fair poster, and puts on lip gloss instead. The once curious girl has finally let go of the interest for science.

After watching the video on Verizon’s website, the audience have the opportunity to explore further the possible outcomes of young girls’ choices, through an interactive part of the campaign. With four different “click-and-drag� games, the visitor to the website can feel like they take part in deciding the future of the young girl portrayed. In the science game, as seen in Figure 1, a picture of a girl playing dress-up is seen, with the words “Does dress-up determine her future?� spread across the picture. If the reader drags the arrow to the left, a film plays out showing the girl putting on a princess dress, and ends with the words “Girls are 3x less likely than boys to aspire to be scientists or engineers. Playtime can open her mind to possibilities that break down gender stereotypes». However, if the reader drags the arrow to the right, the girl can be seen putting on an astronaut costume, and the words «The best way to end up with more women in science is by using playtime to spark her imagination for subjects like astronomy and physics» appear (Verizon, 2014).

Figure 2 (Verizon, 2014)
Figure 2 (Verizon, 2014)

In the games for Technology, Engineering and Maths, similar click-and-drag games can be played, urging parents, guardians and teachers to encourage young girls to learn by solving problems, expose them to challenging activities, and remind them that success comes from taking risks, not from being perfect.

In addition to the video ad and the interactive games, the campaign website offers various ways to encourage girls to get involved in STEM. Quotes and film clips of successful female scientists are presented in collaboration with Makers, a collection of stories about «women making America» (Makers.com). A selection of smartphone apps to motivate children to solve puzzles is also presented, as well as some statistics about STEM, as seen in figure 2.

Figure 3 (Verizon, 2014)
Figure 3 (Verizon, 2014)

Response

Although Verizon’s campaign did not reach the vast audience that Always’ campaign did, the video was quickly spread through social media, and as of August 9th 2014, the video had almost 3.5 million views (Youtube2). Monllos from Adweek claimed campaigns like these are very important, because the way young girls are treated greatly affects the choices they make later in life. “With any luck, the spot (…) will make people think twice about how they interact with young girls� (Monllos, 2014). She also pointed out the important features of the campaign website, including the video clips of real women in the fields, honest testimonials about the struggles and benefits of being female in industries dominated by men (Monllos, 2014).

At Slate, they claimed Makers and Verizon are “getting it rightâ€?, and that the ad felt like “a blast of refreshing cool airâ€?. They argued that the campaign’s strengths include focusing on the parents and teachers rather than the children, and that it does not put too much emphasis only on how values of beauty and body image affect young girls, but how they also respond to being encouraged to be quiet, neat and safe (Marcotte, 2014). ABC News called the campaign powerful, showing how “social cues and seemingly innocent comments are sending young girls the message that they’re better off holding a tube of lipstick than a power toolâ€? (Brown, 2014).

Although many writers agreed that the Verizon ad certainly was a step in the right direction, it received some negative response as well. In the weekly video blog (vlog) the Factual Feminist, from the conservative research institution American Enterprise Institute, Christina Hoff Sommers discusses topics related to feminism and gender scholarship (Sommers, 2014). In a vlog post from June, Sommers claimed some of the information Verizon presented in the campaign was “dubious�. She pointed out that it wasn’t explained what kind of confidence Verizon was referring to, in the quote “Confidence drops from 72% to 55% between middle school and high school�. She also points out that although “66% of 4th grade girls reported they like science and math, but by college, only 18% of engineering majors are female� (Verizon, 2014), girls are far more represented in college degrees in for example math, chemistry and biology, and that in some states, girls outnumber boys on science fairs. Another point Sommers makes, is that the campaign is almost implying that science is masculine, and that girls need to become less ‘girly’ and more masculine in order to pursue science careers. She asks “Can’t they be girly as well as smart and ambitious? (…) Let her know she can be pretty and pretty brilliant� (Sommers, 2014).

Some bloggers agree with Sommers’ last point. One wrote that the campaign had good intentions, but he did not agree with how the message is presented in the video. “Beauty doesn’t inhibit intellect. (…) Creativity and intelligence and fashion and aesthetics and athletics can all go hand-in-handâ€? (Wolke, 2014). Another wrote that the ad is misogynist, encouraging girls to be more masculine, as if femininity is bad, and masculinity is good. “In this light, consider how we treat boys who feel drawn to girly thingsâ€?. She was also critical to the play on the viewers’ emotions: “Ironically, the ad milks emotions, with mawkish violins and the sad faces of young girls — every single one of whom is pretty. There’s nothing scientific about this presentationâ€?.

Despite some of the critique Verizon received for addressing an issue that was not really there (Sommers, 2014), the campaign was in fact a response to an article published on NBC News in May 2014, claiming STEM is still a boys club, and the gender divide takes off in middle school (Wagstaff, 2014). Emily Calandrelli, who will start hosting an educational science program for teens later this year, pointed out that girls need more female role models from the field, teachers need to recognise the gender imbalance when it occurs, and that “programs that encourage young girls to pursue STEM send a strong message. They say, ‘You are welcome at the table. This is also for you.’� (Wagstaff, 2014).

Conclusion

Both Always’ Like a girl campaign and Verizon’s Inspire her mind campaign can be said to be part of what is referred to as commodity activism. They are both about how confidence changes during puberty, and how language makes reality, through labels and stereotypes. Other similarities include the use of YouTube and hashtags. These features help the videos go viral, and must be said to be a big part of their success. They received both positive and negative response, and some of the negative pointed to how the products seemingly have little to do with the messages of the campaigns.

The campaigns encourage consumers to show concern about young girls’ confidence and life choices, through engaging brand loyalty to the products. However, the focus is not on the products, in fact they are not even mentioned in the videos. “Along the way, of course, the goal is also to build loyalty to the brand, which makes a particularly big difference in a category with high loyalty rates and where women often stay for with the brand they start using as girls� wrote Ad Age (Neff, 2014). Although Verizon and Always are building their brands, the products are presented very subtly, which can be said to be characteristic for commodity activism.

References

Althouse, A. (2014 July 22). What’s so terrible about that Verizon “Inspire Her Mind” ad gently prodding parents to encourage intellectual development in girls? Althouse. Retrieved 09.08.2014 from http://althouse.blogspot.com.au/2014/07/whats-so-terrible-about-that-verizon.html

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