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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

A vintage Craven A advert. Advertisers have long appropriated female empowerment. Photo Flickr
A vintage Craven A advert. Advertisers have long appropriated female empowerment. Photo Flickr

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