A vintage Craven A advert. Advertisers have long appropriated female empowerment. Photo Flickr
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Laurie Penny on advertising: First, the admen stole feminism – then they used it to flog cheap chocolate and perfume to us

Advertising is one of the areas where profound cultural battles are played out in public

In the late 1920s, not many women smoked. To do so in public was seen as unladylike, a signal of promiscuity and general naughtiness. So the American Tobacco Company hired Edward Bernays, the man now known as “the father of public relations”, to find a way of selling cigarettes to women. The first feminist wave was still in full, frilly-hatted swing and Bernays realised that women’s desire for independence could be manipulated for profit.

Bernays let it be known that during the Easter Sunday Parade of 1929, a group of suffragettes would be lighting “torches of freedom”, and arranged for photographers to be on standby. On cue, in the middle of the parade, a gang of hired models produced packets of cigarettes and sparked up. The images were distributed around the world.

It worked like a dream. In 1923 women purchased only 5 per cent of all cigarettes sold but by 1935 that had increased to 18 per cent. Almost instantly, cigarettes became associated with empowerment. It was perhaps the first time feminism was appropriated to sell us things we don’t need; it wouldn’t be the last. I’m writing this with an e-cigarette in my hand, by the way. It isn’t very empowering.

Capitalism has a way of cannibalising its own dissent. The endless weary suggestions that we need to “rebrand” feminism miss how women’s liberation – particularly when gently pried away from its more radical, anti-family, anti-racist, anti-capitalist tendencies – has long been used to sell everything from cheap perfume to vibrators. From Revlon’s Charlie adverts, marketing drugstore scent to the “new women” of the 1970s, to the more recent Dove “Campaign for Real Beauty” (which shows how we can make ourselves feel better about the psychosocial terrorism of the beauty ideal by rubbing in a bit of body lotion), every groundswell of idealism has salesmen scampering in its wake.

Recently an advert produced by Snickers in Australia featured construction workers shouting feminist statements. “You want to hear a filthy word?” they yell from their scaffolding. “Gender bias!”

The advert’s punchline – “You’re not yourself when you’re hungry” – manages to be offensive on a number of levels, not least by implying that manual labourers in their natural state are rude, aggressive boors. As was quickly observed, if this is how men behave when they haven’t eaten cheap chocolate there’s a good argument for never feeding them again.

Advertising is one of the sites where profound cultural battles are played out in public. Posters selling cosmetic surgery appear far more rarely on the London Underground since they began to be defaced and stickered over with messages about sexism and self-image. Naturally, I’d never do anything like that, because that would be destruction of property. So if you’re reading this and thinking of doing a bit of subvertising, I’d encourage you to scrawl slogans only over any posters you may own, any billboards you may own, and the walls of any public buildings or bus shelters you may own.

Even the most challenging advertising usually plays on trends and ideas that are current in the mainstream. The co-option of basic feminist sentiments by the hawkers of cheap chocolate and panty liners clearly demonstrates that a cultural shift has taken place – yet the stark juxtaposition of these ever-so-slightly challenging adverts with the everyday wall of airbrushed limbs draped over cars, credit cards and the tele­phone numbers of payday loan companies signals just how far we have to go.

The trouble is that, while progressive ideas can be used to spice up a confectionery campaign, social justice itself is a hard sell. The kind of feminist change that will make a material difference to the lives of millions, the kind of feminist change growing numbers of ordinary people are getting interested in, is about far more than body image. It’s about changing the way women (and, by extension, everyone else) get to live and love and work. It’s about boring, unsexy, structural problems such as domestic work and unpaid labour, racism and income inequality. It’s about freeing us to live lives in which we are more than how we look, what we buy and what we have to sell.

I don’t hold with the notion that feminism comes in “waves”. For me, gender liberation is a tsunami, vast and slow-moving, that will sweep away all the stale old hierarchies and leave us with something fresh and free. But the activists of what is now being spoken of as feminism’s “fourth wave” – digital, intersectional, globally connected and mad as hell – are good at branding, and increasingly confident in getting their message out. The iconography of injustice has altered in the internet age and viral moments, popular hashtags, catchy videos and slogans are being used to promote ideas that are more challenging than anything mainstream advertising has yet thought of.

There is nothing wrong with a bit of showmanship. Nor is using feminist ideas to sell chocolate and cosmetics a bad thing. But there are some ideas that will remain challenging and disturbing, however you dress them up. You can’t walk into a shop and buy a torch of freedom – you have to light the fire yourself, and pass it on.

Laurie Penny is the contributing editor of the New Statesman

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

This article first appeared in the 09 April 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Anxiety nation

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Chuka Umunna calls for "solidarity" among Labour MPs, whoever is voted leader

The full text of shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna's speech to Policy Network on election-winning ideas for Labour's future, and the weaknesses of the New Labour project.

There has never been an easy time to be a social democrat (or “democratic socialist” as we sometimes call ourselves in Britain). Whereas the right can demonise the poor and extol the virtues of the market, and the hard left can demonise the market and extol the role of the state, our position of constraining the domination of markets and reforming the state is, by definition, more complex.

It is nonetheless the case that social democracy has a historic responsibility, in every generation, to renew democracy and preserve a civic culture. This is achieved not through soundbites and slogans, but through the hard-headed development of a progressive politics that reconciles liberty and democracy, new comers and locals to our communities, business and workers, in a common life that preserves security, prosperity and peace.  This historic mission is all the more urgent now and my determination that we succeed has grown not weakened since our election defeat last May.

But, in order to be heard, it is necessary to make balanced and reasonable argument that both animates and inspires our movement, and which is popular and plausible with the people.  The first is pre-requisite to the second; and there is no choice to be made between your party’s fundamental principles and electability. They are mutually dependent - you cannot do one without the other.

We are in the midst of choosing a new leader and it is clear to anyone who has watched the UK Labour Party leadership election this summer that amongst a significant number there is a profound rage against Third Way politics – as pursued by the likes of Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, Gerhard Schröder and others - as a rejection of our fundamental values.

In the UK there is a view that New Labour accepted an uncritical accommodation with global capital that widened inequality, weakened organised labour and we were too close to the US Republicans and too far from the European left.

I do not believe this is fair, not least because we rescued many of our public services from the scrap heap when we came to office in 1997 and there were very significant achievements  we should celebrate.  New Labour renewed our National Health Service in a fundamental way; we built new schools and improved existing ones; we set up new children’s centres all over the country; we brought in a National Minimum Wage; we worked with others to bring peace to Northern Ireland; we introduced civil partnerships.  Just some of our achievements.

However, though we may take issue with the critique, I do not think we can simply dismiss out of hand those who hold critical views of New Labour. Like any government, the New Labour administration made mistakes - it could and should have achieved more, and done more to challenge the Right’s assumptions about the world. In the end, it is not unreasonable to be ambitious for what your party in government can achieve in building greater equality, liberty, democracy and sustainability. It is far better we acknowledge, not reject, this ambition for a better world, as we seek to forge a new politics of the common good fit for the future.

Realising our values in office has been disrupted by globalisation and the surge of technological forces that are displacing and reshaping industry after industry.

Some argue that globalisation as an ideological construct of the right. But we must recognise that we live in an increasingly integrated world in which markets have led to an unprecedented participation of excluded people in prosperity, a rise in living standards for hundreds of millions  of people and a literacy unprecedented in human history – this is particularly so in emerging economies like my father’s native Nigeria. And the internet has led to a level of accountability that has disturbed elites.

Yet, this has been combined with a concentration of ownership that needs to be challenged, of a subordination of politics that requires creative rather than reactive thinking, and these global forces have exacerbated inequalities as well as helped reduce poverty.

So it is important that we understand the sheer scale and impact of new technologies. At the moment we are engaged in a debate about Uber and its threat to one of the last vestiges of vocational labour markets left in London, those of the black taxi cabs and their attainment of 'The Knowledge'. But the reality is that within the next decade there will be the emergence of driverless cars so we have to intensify our exploration of how to support people in a knowledge economy and the realities of lifelong learning, as well as lifelong teaching. As people live longer we will have to think about how to engage them constructively in work and teaching in new ways.

Once again, I'm addressing all of this, Social Democracy requires a balanced view that domesticates the destructive energy of capital while recognising its creative energy, that recognises the need for new skills rather than simply the protection of old ones. A Social Democracy that recognises that internationalism requires co-operation between states and not a zero sum game that protectionism would encourage.

Above all, Social Democratic politics must recognise the importance of place, of the resources to be found in the local through which the pressures of globalisation can be mediated and shaped. Our job is to shape the future and neither to accept it as a passive fate nor to indulge the fantasy that we can dominate it but to work with the grain of change in order to renew our tradition, recognising the creativity of the workforce, the benefits of democracy and the importance of building a common life.  Sources of value are to be found in local traditions and institutions.

This also requires a recognition that though demonstration and protest are important,; but relationships and conversations are a far more effective way of building a movement for political change.

One of the huge weaknesses of New Labour was in its reliance on mobilisation from the centre rather than organising. It therefore allowed itself to be characterised as an elite project with wide popular support but it did not build a base for its support within the party across the country, and it did not develop leaders from the communities it represented. It was strong on policy but weak on strengthening democratic politics, particularly Labour politics.

Over half a million people are now members, supporters or affiliated supporters of our party, with hundreds of thousands joining in the last few weeks. Some have joined in order to thwart the pursuit of Labour values but many more have joined to further the pursuit of those values, including lots of young people. At a time when so many are walking away from centre left parties across the Western world and many young people do not vote let alone join a party, this is surely something to celebrate.

So it is vital that we now embrace our new joiners and harness the energy they can bring to renewing Labour’s connection with the people. First, we must help as many them as possible to become doorstep activists for our politics. Second, I have long argued UK Labour should campaign and organise not only to win elections but to affect tangible change through local community campaigns. We brought Arnie Graf, the Chicago community organiser who mentored President Obama in his early years, over from the U.S. to help teach us how to community organise more effectively. We should bring Arnie back over to finish the job and help empower our new joiners to be the change they want to see in every community – we need to build on the links they have with local groups and organisations.

I mentioned at the beginning that in every generation Social Democracy is besieged from left and right but the achievements of each generation are defined by the strength of a complex political tradition that strengthens solidarity through protecting democracy and liberty, a role for the state and the market and seeks to shape the future through an inclusive politics. Solidarity is key which is why we must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office.

Yes, these are troubled times for social democrats. All over Europe there is a sense among our traditional voters that we are remote and do not share their concerns or represent their interests or values.  There is surge of support for populist right wing parties from Denmark to France, of more left wing parties in Greece and Spain and in Britain too. There is renewal of imperial politics in Russia, the murderous and abhorrent regime of ISIL in the Middle East, volatility in the Chinese economy and in Europe a flow of immigration that causes fear and anxiety.

But, the task of Social Democracy in our time is to fashion a politics of hope that can bring together divided populations around justice, peace and prosperity so that we can govern ourselves democratically. We have seen worse than this and weathered the storm. I am looking forward, with great optimism to be being part of a generation that renews our relevance and popularity in the years to come.

Chuka Umunna is the shadow business secretary and the Labour MP for Streatham.