Feminism 101: Using Feminism to Sell Products

Learning from Pepsi's ad disaster of an ad, our favorite feminists consider the use of feminism in the capitalist marketplace
By Avital Norman Nathman  Published on 04/14/2017 at 12:30 PM EDT

Pepsi recently released (and then quickly pulled and apologized for) a new ad that capitalized on feminism and social justice, implying that all movements need to do is share a Pepsi with a police officer and all will be right with the world. The reaction to the ad was swift and loud: folks were decidedly NOT buying it.

But, is there a way to use feminism or social justice to sell products in a way that doesn’t cheapen or lessen the actual messages? We asked some of our favorite feminists to weigh in with their thoughts:

What are your thoughts on using feminism to sell things and is there ever a way to do it right?

Soraya Chemaly:I’m deeply cynical. Corporations have always seized the idea of ‘women’s empowerment’ for profit without taking even the most basic steps towards changing their own cultures to make them more inclusive and egalitarian. It’s almost guaranteed that the company you see pushing images, most recently white supremacists’ ones, of women being ‘free’ and ‘powerful’ are the same ones that have maintained boards that are 85% white, 85% male and lobbied heavily against institutionalizing paid family leave and care policies. If they were serious they’d be advertising their own internal examples. I’m not seeing many, if any, of those.

Danielle Corcione:I like brands that take feminist action rather than playing up their ideals, like (dare I say) paying their workers a livable wage. Intersectional feminism is beyond wanting to know who is and who isn’t feminist. Of course, pink capitalism, or using women’s empowerment as a marketing strategy, isn’t. Lots of companies contradict themselves when branding themselves as feminist, like those that print “this is what a feminist looks like” phrases on t-shirts made in sweatshops abroad by exploiting young female workers.

I also feel no business can be truly feminist because capitalism itself is not feminist; capitalism was created by profiting off the violence and labor of the oppressed. If you’d like to read more on the subject, I highly suggest We Were Feminists Once by Andi Zeisler, the founder of Bitch Magazine. “

Jane Ruffino:I think brands can embrace strong values and speak to a feminist audience, but it has to be in their realm of expertise. I hesitate to say you can have a fully feminist company because I think capitalism is inherently anti-feminist, but we can use feminism to navigate capitalist structures and spaces, and, of course lots of feminists run/influence companies aimed at other feminists.

For example, fashion brands can be truly body positive, or they can work to improve labor conditions along the supply chain. They can take sustainability stands, which matters because climate change is a feminist issue. If you run a business that caters to women, simply being as affordable as possible can be your thing. It doesn’t have to say ‘feminism’ all over it, and it’s usually better if it doesn’t.

I think it’s at least as important how a company is internally, however. Body-positive images and empowering messages may still belong to a company that treats staff badly. I’d rather give my money to a company that doesn’t claim feminism but treats everyone with respect and invests in its people.

I think the important thing for brands is that they never take a stand that’s bigger or bolder than they can back up. It has to reflect values they already live internally, and that they don’t try to dominate the conversation or claim to be doing political work that they’re not. Consumers are savvy, and politically aware ones even more so. If they find out you’re faking, they’ll be done with you.”

Bex vanKoot:I appreciate and support individual feminists and collective activist organizations that use capitalism to fund their lives and their work. Being a feminist who experiences misogyny is hard work, and that work deserves to be compensated. But I reject the co-opting of feminism by corporations and individuals who do nothing to support the cause, or who actively harm women through sexist hiring and employment practices, exploitation of laborers in countries with lax protection and wage laws, or misogynistic advertising.

Debra A. Klein:The best use of feminism I’ve seen in a recent ad doesn’t have any women in it. It features a caretaker Dad using a Swiffer to mop up the muddy mess his kid tracked into the kitchen after their fun day outside jumping in puddles. It looks like real life.

It contrasts completely with what looks like an attempt at a feminist ad — the Dad fretting over the cleanliness of his daughter’s Princess costume — using a script that seems yanked from the 1960s — to make the point that now it’s the Dad worrying about the messy girl’s clothes being clean as opposed to the Mom worrying about the messy boy’s clothes being clean. While it’s clear the company was going for some sort of brand continuity, the reality is nobody of either gender has time to sit around and worry about how clean the laundry is anymore, that’s why the other ad is more effective.

The Swiffer ad is matter-of-factly feminist, and  — unlike the detergent ad — I totally recalled the name of the product because I believed the scenario reflected life as it’s lived today.

Now, maybe it’s time to use feminism to sell something other than soap?”

Jennifer Pozner:Since the 1970s, advertising critic and Killing Us Softly filmmaker Jean Kilbourne has been analyzing the damage done when advertisers cynical co-opt feminist language and symbols to sell us random crap. Jean was formative to my development as a media critic, influencing me to write and do media literacy workshops about this topic since the 1990s. When corporations attempt to build their brands by capitalizing on feminism’s symbolic power, they often end up draining our language, ideology, and movement of its meaning, redirecting our quest for gender justice away from action and toward hyperconsumption. Don’t worry your pretty little heads about protest/organizing/resistance/leadership, the underlying message urges, because you can get all the ’empowerment’ you need if you just buy this lipstick/underwear/car/cigarette. The co-optation of our movements — from carcinogenic pink fracking drill bits to Pepsi’s universally panned Kylie Jenner commercial to $800 high-fashion #BlackLivesMatter designer tee shirts that don’t fund actual racial justice organizations — is sociologically and politically destructive.”

Rebecca Hains (Author of Growing Up With Girl Power): “When people ask whether feminism is a good way to sell things, I like to bring up the use and abuse of the concept of ‘girl power.’ Its devolution from feminist rallying cry to meaningless catchphrase makes a good cautionary tale, illustrating that capitalism and feminism are largely at odds with one another.

[For example] The Spice Girls brand was the first to coopt Riot Grrrl rhetoric. They produced magazines and books that were essentially slick, glossy, mainstream versions of the riot grrrls’ zines. These publications contained watered-down ‘manifestos’ and featured the tagline, ‘The only official girl power magazine’ — which was pretty brazen of them, given their blatant appropriation.

The whole premise of the Spice Girls’ claim about Girl Power in the marketplace was this: If girls listened to the Spice Girls and bought their products, they too could have girl power. This type of rhetoric transformed ‘girl power’ from something a girl enacted on her own behalf (in a DIY, punk-rock way) into a commodity that could be purchased. Marketers were quick to catch on. Soon enough, a slew of generic girl power products saturated the marketplace. These weren’t affiliated with the Spice Girls, and the Spice Girls didn’t like it, but they couldn’t do anything to stop it (except plead to their fans to only buy girl power merchandise from them, of course). In short order, you could buy products of every description with the slogan ‘girl power’ on it — everything from clothing to clocks to posters to bedding to picture frames, and much more. In fact, it even appeared on thong underwear, suggesting perhaps that a girl’s true power came from her sexuality.

In this way, over time, girl power lost its meaning. It came to mean nothing more than ‘buy this’ — a signal that a product was ‘for girls,’ especially those who identified as empowered. But the catchphrase’s connection to anything related to the empowerment of girls became tenuous at best, which sadly is typical of commodity feminism.”


Have a question for our ragtag group of raging feminists? Send it to Avital Norman Nathman at and it might just be answered in a future Feminism 101!

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