Airtel, one of the leading telecom providers from India aired an advertisement that was supposed to break gender barriers at work, but the ad also reinstated another long standing gender stereotype in the Indian society.There were discussions on social media and it became a news hour debate on TV (probably sponsored by Airtel). I questioned but also defended the ad with few people.

Feminist ideas were used in advertising to make a false promise of empowerment and sell products based on that. Craven A was the first brand to use women’s empowerment message as a way to market their brand. Owing to these ads and the socio cultural norms it purported, women smokers in the US increased from 5 percent in 1923 to 18 percent in 1935 (Penny,2014). The most famous campaign was from Virginia Slims in the 1960s. The extremely disturbing aspect of these advertisements was the fact that they were selling a product that will potentially kill women in the name of women empowerment.

Image Credit: Dee Leitner, Pinterest feminist consumerism

Image Credit: Dee Leitner, Pinterest

In the recent years, we especially see a surge in the ads targeting women in developing countries that show faux feministic ideologies to sell products that indeed reinstate the same stereotypes. A case in point is the Dove’s real beauty ads that camouflage women’s empowerment message to sell their skin care products.

The ad talks about the insecurities of women while they describe themselves to an artist. But, the irony is that there were no implications on these big companies that created these insecurities through selling beauty products. The real empowerment message that the parent company (Unilever) could have given was by stopping the sales of their fairness creams in South East Asian and South Asian countries. The market for fairness creams in India alone is estimated at $54 Bn (Bhatt, 2014) and Unilever wouldn’t want to lose that money, as they are the market leaders.

Recently, FCKH8, an online retailer of clothes, made children from 6-13 speak out supporting gender, race and feminism. But, there were two major issues, one they were eschewing many F-words and the brand was trying to sell anti-sexism t-shirts. This was the same company that tried to sell Ferguson t-shirts when the case was widely publicised in the US.

One of the reasons why there is a recent splurge of female empowerment based ads is that in the social media world, brands are expected to stand for more than what they actually sell. Every brand is running behind likes and shares in the social media world, and tagging a social message along with a multi-million dollar ad campaign gives them the leverage they want. The discussions that ensue gives them the expected publicity and Airtel did enjoy widespread publicity by just making a false woman empowerment ad.

Johnston and Taylor (2008) call this as ‘feminist consumerism’. The problem with campaigns like Dove’s “Real beauty” or Pantene’s “Sorry, but not sorry” or FCKH8’s campaign is that they expect women to buy a product to feel empowered. These products reestablish the same societal constructs that feminism is against. Grassroots feminist activists make more impact in bringing in change to the society, but the problem is they don’t have the same budgets as these multi-billion dollar companies.

When we voice against objectification of women in advertising, don’t you think even faux idealisms that promote consumerism are also equally dangerous?

List of references:

  1. Airtel India, (2014). Boss Film – The Smartphone Network. [image] Available at: [Accessed 23 Oct. 2014].
  2. Bhatt, S. (2014). Journey of fairness creams’ advertising in India. [online] The Economic Times. Available at: [Accessed 24 Oct. 2014].
  3. Dove United States, (2014). Dove Real Beauty Sketches. Available at: [Accessed 23 Oct. 2014].
  4., (2014). Potty-Mouthed Princesses Drop F-Bombs for Feminism. Available at: [Accessed 25 Oct. 2014].
  5. Johnston, J. and Taylor, J. (2008). Feminist consumerism and fat activists: A comparative study of grassroots activism and the Dove real beauty campaign. Signs, 33(4), pp.941–966.
  6. Pantene, (2014). Not Sorry. ShineStrong Pantene. Available at: [Accessed 24 Oct. 2014].
  7. Penny, L. (2014). Laurie Penny on advertising: First, the admen stole feminism – then they used it to flog cheap chocolate and perfume to us. [online] Available at: [Accessed 23 Oct. 2014].
  8. Virginia Slims super woman print advertisement. (2014). [image] Available at: [Accessed 26 Oct. 2014].

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Posted by Sylvian

Marketing Analyst by profession, a quizzer by passion, a blogger by choice, a poet by chance, a non-conformist by gene and a rebel by birth


  1. Ironically, when cigarettes are advertised for men, there is nothing wrong. Ditto with alcohol. But when these are advertised for women, IT’S WRONG. That’s the bias feminists are fighting against. If you think (adult) men are mature enough to watch ads and determine which product to buy, so are (adult) women?

    Destination Infinity


    1. I didn’t say that it is right to advertise alcoholic or cigarette products on men. Even fairness creams sold to men are as offensive as selling them to a woman. But the topic I took was about feminist marketing and I didn’t want to disturb the context. I never said other thing is correct.


  2. or maybe feminism is to draw attention (that’s the point of an ad)

    I kinda like the ad from Airtel India. It’s strange at first, but also raise an interesting viewpoint. If it was the other way round, then people might say why women are always objectified by men. I don’t think they mean that females should buy their product to feel empowered. I think they want to capture the empathy from consumers to prove that their brand goes for it.

    However, the example from FCKH8 is outrageous. Even though they say bad words for good cause, I don’t consider it appropriate enough to persuade audience. The attention for it is not from the content itself, but the fact that the children were abused to act that way. Feminism in this case fails, i suppose.


    1. In Airtel’s case, the ad was used to make people debate about the advertisement. I think it was cleverly done because the company/agency would have expected outrage on the idea of woman cooking at the end of the day. I think it was a deliberate attempt to induce a social media debate and it did create huge uproar on twitter and Facebook. We were making the publicity for Airtel 🙂


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