The concept of empowerment, originally referring to members of marginalised groups achieving autonomy or authority despite societal expectations or restrictions, is a compelling idea. Even the word, both in the way it sounds and with its attendant ideas of liberation and personal fulfillment, is attractive. EMPOWERMENT. It brings to mind a fight for justice, hard-won self-worth and strutting around with well deserved confidence.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given both its evocative nature and convenient vagueness, the word has also become a marketing favourite, especially in the context of fourth-wave feminism. Facilitated by the democratised space of social media and blogging putting marginalised voices on the frontline, feminism has seen a resurgence in recent years. Women are currently in the position where decades of campaigning have won them the right to live as they choose, but the hangover of centuries of oppression result in lingering inequality and stubbornly sexist attitudes. This middle stage, where so much has been achieved but there’s still a way to go, makes empowerment a particularly attractive concept.
And when marketing towards women, there seems to be little that isn’t potentially empowering. “Loving yourself” is empowering, which can translate to anything from losing weight, to buying a new lipstick, to pampering yourself. Learning new things, getting a gym membership, being fashionable, rebelling against fashion, buying sanitary products, celebrating “real beauty”, putting on make up – in the current marketing landscape, it’s all empowering, and the resulting meaninglessness of the term is becoming ever more evident.
This article in the Guardian by Hadley Freeman highlights the issue with this, and empowerment in marketing towards women is in danger of becoming the new “just make it pink”, a go-to, patronising and noticeably lazy marketing strategy.
This is especially true if a brand has never shown any particular interest in women’s issues before. We laugh at sexist adverts from the fifties (buy this or your husband will leave you!) but the reality is that advertisers have for too long relied on stereotypes, fostering insecurity and retrograde attitudes in order to sell their products, to both men and women.
Empowerment is of course a welcome sea-change from the above, where instead of making women feel like they have to buy a product because they will be socially or romantically rejected if they don’t, advertisers are saying that purchasing a product is a result of their confidence and indisputable self-worth.
However, with insensitive or ill-thought out use, brands can run the risk of looking cynical and deceptive, and the concept has become so over-used that it may not even be effective anyway. Unless a brand has a true involvement in women’s issues, or has ties to women’s charities, it could be time to leave the concept of empowerment behind and instead come up with new and creative ways to market to women.
Advertisers can even put themselves on the right side of history by creating a narrative that directly counteracts years of sexism within the industry, directly improving society by being ahead of the curve and rejecting the stereotypes which may have made it easier to sell products, but are ultimately damaging. The use of empowerment in marketing has been the first stage in this, and by letting these ideas evolve brands can both cut ahead of the competition and change the advertising landscape for the better.