Pantene’s “No Labels” ad has gained 27 million views since it was discovered a month ago. Widely met with praise, the ad (created for the company’s Philippines market) pays homage to common stereotypes, misperceptions, and double standards women frequently face in the workplace. A man in a suit gives an impassioned speech from behind a podium that says PERSUASIVE; when the next shot shows a woman in his place, the podium reads PUSHY. A man might be the “boss,” but the woman in charge is always “bossy.” You get the idea.
The closing message: “Don’t let labels hold you back. Be strong and shine.”
Yet for all the accolades the ad has gained on social media, nothing can pass through the blogosphere without criticism. Self-described “media personality” Ashley Hesseltine thought the ad showed women “playing the victim.” The Washington Post’s Alexandra Petri slammed the ad for commandeering feminism to sell a frivolous consumer product. In a similar vein, Michelle Juergen and Mollie Hemingway both argued that the “you-go-girl” ad is being used to promote an arbitrary and unfair beauty ideal, undermining its pro-woman message. Katy Waldman at Slate compared the campaign with Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign, saying Dove “incorporated feminism without hollowing it out.” (Like many of Slate‘s claims, that’s hugely debatable. But I’ll let it go.)
So are Procter & Gamble trying to brainwash women into accepting an arbitrary and false beauty ideal? Of course they are – but so what? This is not some grand evil scheme by mankind to keep women in a state of psychological inferiority – this is just what advertisers do. A company wants you to associate its cosmetic line with high-end luxury or social status, so it employs aspirational imagery in its marketing. It’s intended to suggest that you too could be beautiful, successful, or popular, if only you buy their product. This tactic has been particularly insidious in women’s fashion and beauty marketing* for decades, as documentarian Jean Kilbourne has noted in her film “Killing Us Softly.” Today, that glowing, plastic, alien-looking overly-photoshopped effect you see in almost every beauty and fashion ad today is less a symbol of The Patriarchy than it is a decade-old photo editing technique that’s been taken to an extreme** (and will hopefully die out soon).
Pantene’s “No Labels” ad is pure aspirational advertising. What’s interesting is that the content of the aspirational fantasy has changed. It’s no longer good enough to be a well-groomed, statuesque woman with shiny hair. In 2014, you must be a well-groomed, statuesque woman with shiny hair and a full-time job in the knowledge economy. If Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha represented the four temperaments of turn-of-the-century femininity, the new class is being led by the hard-working likes of Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer; rising political stars like Elizabeth Warren; or even self-branded entertainers like Beyonce and Lady Gaga. When you’re stressed from putting in 80 hours at the office this week, at least you won’t have to worry about your hair.
(NB: My hair looks like crap today.)
Also important to keep in mind: this ad wasn’t aired for a national TV audience. It wasn’t even produced for a US audience. 95% of you probably encountered it thanks to Facebook or a HuffPo-like opinion piece. This ad was picked up by your social media friends and the types of “opinion-influencers” you just happen to pay attention to. It borders on banality to remark that today’s media landscape differs drastically from the one-to-many platforms of the 20th century. Advertisers have been able to gather vast datasets of individualized data points, so that the old “women, age 18–34” demographic can now be whittled down to “female, age 18–34; lives in the Philadelphia metro area; search interests include fashion, travel, and fitness; browsing history shows Facebook, HuffingtonPost, and Gilt.com…” you get the idea. Here’s Google’s ad settings, see for yourself.
In an era of “Leaning In” and CEO moms, 56% of college degrees, TedWomen and Zerlina Maxwell talking about rape culture on national TV, Pantene’s commercial is an appropriately 21st-century advertisement. It makes complete sense to aim it toward a certain type of career-oriented, college-credentialled, predominantly-coastal-dwelling, vaguely liberal-leaning woman. Pantene didn’t “co-opt feminism” to sell you shampoo; if anything, they’ve been paying attention to the navel-gazing “Having it All” conversation that women and feminists have been having for the past 30 years.
Which I suppose could imply that if you’re a feminist and this commercial cheeses you off, it’s maybe a little bit your fault?
* It’s increasingly targeting men, too. Did anybody else notice this ad playing 24/7 the week leading up to Christmas? (or for that matter, the entire film 300?)
** Seriously, Julia Roberts didn’t even look like this in the 80s