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

Photo: Getty Images/AFP
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Is Yvette Cooper surging?

The bookmakers and Westminster are in a flurry. Is Yvette Cooper going to win after all? I'm not convinced. 

Is Yvette Cooper surging? The bookmakers have cut her odds, making her the second favourite after Jeremy Corbyn, and Westminster – and Labour more generally – is abuzz with chatter that it will be her, not Corbyn, who becomes leader on September 12. Are they right? A couple of thoughts:

I wouldn’t trust the bookmakers’ odds as far as I could throw them

When Jeremy Corbyn first entered the race his odds were at 100 to 1. When he secured the endorsement of Unite, Britain’s trade union, his odds were tied with Liz Kendall, who nobody – not even her closest allies – now believes will win the Labour leadership. When I first tipped the Islington North MP for the top job, his odds were still at 3 to 1.

Remember bookmakers aren’t trying to predict the future, they’re trying to turn a profit. (As are experienced betters – when Cooper’s odds were long, it was good sense to chuck some money on there, just to secure a win-win scenario. I wouldn’t be surprised if Burnham’s odds improve a bit as some people hedge for a surprise win for the shadow health secretary, too.)

I still don’t think that there is a plausible path to victory for Yvette Cooper

There is a lively debate playing out – much of it in on The Staggers – about which one of Cooper or Burnham is best-placed to stop Corbyn. Team Cooper say that their data shows that their candidate is the one to stop Corbyn. Team Burnham, unsurprisingly, say the reverse. But Team Kendall, the mayoral campaigns, and the Corbyn team also believe that it is Burnham, not Cooper, who can stop Corbyn.

They think that the shadow health secretary is a “bad bank”: full of second preferences for Corbyn. One senior Blairite, who loathes Burnham with a passion, told me that “only Andy can stop Corbyn, it’s as simple as that”.

I haven’t seen a complete breakdown of every CLP nomination – but I have seen around 40, and they support that argument. Luke Akehurst, a cheerleader for Cooper, published figures that support the “bad bank” theory as well.   Both YouGov polls show a larger pool of Corbyn second preferences among Burnham’s votes than Cooper’s.

But it doesn’t matter, because Andy Burnham can’t make the final round anyway

The “bad bank” row, while souring relations between Burnhamettes and Cooperinos even further, is interesting but academic.  Either Jeremy Corbyn will win outright or he will face Cooper in the final round. If Liz Kendall is eliminated, her second preferences will go to Cooper by an overwhelming margin.

Yes, large numbers of Kendall-supporting MPs are throwing their weight behind Burnham. But Kendall’s supporters are overwhelmingly giving their second preferences to Cooper regardless. My estimate, from both looking at CLP nominations and speaking to party members, is that around 80 to 90 per cent of Kendall’s second preferences will go to Cooper. Burnham’s gaffes – his “when it’s time” remark about Labour having a woman leader, that he appears to have a clapometer instead of a moral compass – have discredited him in him the eyes of many. While Burnham has shrunk, Cooper has grown. And for others, who can’t distinguish between Burnham and Cooper, they’d prefer to have “a crap woman rather than another crap man” in the words of one.

This holds even for Kendall backers who believe that Burnham is a bad bank. A repeated refrain from her supporters is that they simply couldn’t bring themselves to give Burnham their 2nd preference over Cooper. One senior insider, who has been telling his friends that they have to opt for Burnham over Cooper, told me that “faced with my own paper, I can’t vote for that man”.

Interventions from past leaders fall on deaf ears

A lot has happened to change the Labour party in recent years, but one often neglected aspect is this: the Labour right has lost two elections on the bounce. Yes, Ed Miliband may have rejected most of New Labour’s legacy and approach, but he was still a protégé of Gordon Brown and included figures like Rachel Reeves, Ed Balls and Jim Murphy in his shadow cabinet.  Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham were senior figures during both defeats. And the same MPs who are now warning that Corbyn will doom the Labour Party to defeat were, just months ago, saying that Miliband was destined for Downing Street and only five years ago were saying that Gordon Brown was going to stay there.

Labour members don’t trust the press

A sizeable number of Labour party activists believe that the media is against them and will always have it in for them. They are not listening to articles about Jeremy Corbyn’s past associations or reading analyses of why Labour lost. Those big, gamechanging moments in the last month? Didn’t change anything.

100,000 people didn’t join the Labour party on deadline day to vote against Jeremy Corbyn

On the last day of registration, so many people tried to register to vote in the Labour leadership election that they broke the website. They weren’t doing so on the off-chance that the day after, Yvette Cooper would deliver the speech of her life. Yes, some of those sign-ups were duplicates, and 3,000 of them have been “purged”.  That still leaves an overwhelmingly large number of sign-ups who are going to go for Corbyn.

It doesn’t look as if anyone is turning off Corbyn

Yes, Sky News’ self-selecting poll is not representative of anything other than enthusiasm. But, equally, if Yvette Cooper is really going to beat Jeremy Corbyn, surely, surely, she wouldn’t be in third place behind Liz Kendall according to Sky’s post-debate poll. Surely she wouldn’t have been the winner according to just 6.1 per cent of viewers against Corbyn’s 80.7 per cent. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.