Can a Tampon Ad Really Empower You?

Consumer products ads have jumped on the girls and women’s empowerment bandwagon. Is this commercialization of women’s equality a good thing?On the positive side, when a company like Pantene bases an entire shampoo ad campaign on exposing sexism and starts a hashtag telling women to #ShineStrong, you know something big has shifted in the culture.Pantene’s wildly successful first commercial in the series exposing gender stereotypes—along with the bounciest, shiniest hair I’ve ever seen—spread so fast virally that clearly integrating a women’s empowerment social message into a sales pitch must be the wave (sorry, pun) of the future.Oops, I didn’t mean to apologize. Pantene’s second ad, “Not Sorry”,Illustrates how often women apologize for—everything. And how uncalled for that reporter Kelly Wallace asked me why women apologize so much for an article she wrote. She cited a study that found men don’t think women apologize excessively. Yet the research is clear that we do. The reason for this disconnect in perception is simple. When you have the power and the privilege, you also have blind spots. You don’t need to empathize with what is going on with others.  You can afford to be clueless because you already own the world.  A clever ad that illustrates those dynamics can only help both men and women recognize their patterns and perhaps even modify sexist behavior.Soon after the “Not Sorry” ad, a Procter and Gamble Always sanitary pads ad soon began its viral climb to popularity with a positive #LikeAGirl message.The gendered language examples in all three ads are starkly about power. Who has more, who has less, and how men and women position themselves as a result.  The group with less power (in this case women) will always exhibit language, including body language, consistent with lesser power. Sort of a form of curtseying or kissing the ring.  Women also use less direct language, more nuanced adjectives; this drives men who want simple declarative sentences mad.I’ve started teaching what I call gender bilingual communication skills in my women’s leadership courses because I’ve realized how important these nuanced narratives are to reinforcing culturally learned implicit biases that influence our behavior from the boardroom to the bedroom.The good news is that once we are aware of behavior, we can change it. These are learnable skills. Pop culture like these ads can help illustrate our foibles and model more equitable actions. And it is precisely the nuanced skills in reading people that make women executives so effective and companies with more of them more profitable.  Let’s not be sorry about that.Yet, I confess to mixed feelings about the commercialization of women’s empowerment messages. It’s great that teaching girls and women to embrace their gender as a positive has become so mainstream that consumer products companies are promoting it. Those companies have much more advertising money than women’s advocacy groups. So props to them for spending it on a positive message.The downside of course is identical—women’s advocacy groups typically have little money to spend on public messages. And, more importantly, let’s face it: consumer product companies rarely jump onto a message bandwagon until the rest of us are already there anyway. For in the end their mission is, after all, to sell products that might or might not be healthy for women.As gender scholar and Mama w/Pen writer Deborah Siegel put it,

Thinking like a girl over here, I say it’s high time empowerment causes, and not just empowerment products, had a PSA as powerful as this tampon ad. Causes for the betterment of women and girls’ lives deserve our most creative thinking, our savviest makers of all sorts.

I’ll take commercial ads that boost the confidence of girls and women and raise them one with this challenge: how about committing an equal amount of money to women’s leadership development, engaging more girls and women in STEM fields, and investing in women entrepreneurs, for starters?