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When Femvertising Backfires

Western-centric femvertising can provoke uneasiness and controversies in non-Western markets. Understanding local culture and collaboration are crucial.

Effective femvertising celebrates inclusivity and represents women from various backgrounds. (Luwadlin Bosman/Unsplash)

By Shafiullah Anis and Juliana A. French, Monash University Malaysia

KUALA LUMPUR, May 14 – The rise of femvertising — using feminist ideals in advertising to promote products — has sparked debates about its role in empowering women.

Originally hailed as a progressive step toward gender equality, femvertising has encountered complex challenges, particularly when campaigns are used in different cultural markets.

There are potential contradictions inherent in using femvertising to promote feminist messages.

In 2021, the “Know Your V” campaign by Libresse in Malaysia tried to destigmatise female anatomy, but received significant backlash and calls for a boycott. 

Using vulva imagery on packaging and ads inspired by Nyonya Kebaya, a traditional garment, was seen as “vulgar” and a misappropriation of cultural symbols by many religious groups.

The brand was forced to withdraw its campaign and explained it was never its intention to offend any woman or the community.

This incident highlights the importance of adopting cultural context and sensitivity in femvertising.

When femvertising adopts Western feminist interpretations of empowerment in certain non-Western contexts — such as body positivity through the public display of private parts — it can alienate women who do not subscribe to such interpretations.

In Malaysia, many viewed the depiction of the vulva on Libresse packaging as “unnecessary” and as deviating from the scientific explanation of the menstrual process.

It was perceived not only as dishonorable to women but also as “an exploitation of women’s bodies in advertising.”

Malaysian women embraced empowerment and gender equality, but rejected the “one-size-fits-all” approach to Western ideals.

Femvertising faces criticism for reducing feminism to a marketing tool. By promoting gender equality while lacking female representation in leadership or addressing pay gaps, companies are seen as hypocritical. 

This turns a social movement into a commodity and undermines the broader goals of feminism.

Some argue that femvertising promotes individual empowerment through consumption, ignoring systemic inequalities, referred to as post-feminist ideology.

In a post-feminist ideology, where collective struggle against patriarchy is considered a thing of the past, purchasing certain products is presented as the solution to gender issues, overshadowing collective efforts to dismantle societal barriers.

This narrow focus on consumerism sidelines the ongoing struggle for gender equality.

Femvertising often targets middle and upper-class women, neglecting women of other classes, races, or sexuality.

This exclusion of many women fails to address their diverse needs and challenges and falls well short of providing meaningful empowerment.

Companies could conduct thorough cultural research, collaborate with local NGOs, communities and cultural experts, and involve diverse women in the campaign creation process.

This would ensure messages are culturally relevant and avoid accusations of cultural imperialism.

Brands could also incorporate an educational aspect that addresses local gender issues, providing valuable information and sparking discussions that can lead to real change.

While the pitfalls of west-centric femvertising are significant, they don’t render the practice of femvertising futile.

Instead, they highlight the need for a deeper understanding and more thoughtful approach to global marketing strategies.

By respecting cultural differences and involving local communities in the creation of feminist messages, femvertising has the potential to be a powerful force for gender equality.

The goal is not just to sell products but to inspire and enact change that elevates all women, respecting their unique cultural and social contexts.

This approach not only avoids the traps of cultural imperialism but ensures the message of empowerment is heard and welcomed across diverse backgrounds and experiences.

Shafiullah Anis is a lecturer in marketing at the School of Business, Monash University Malaysia. Juliana A. French is the head of the department of marketing and a senior lecturer with Monash University Malaysia.

Article courtesy of 360info.  

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