Confessions of a Feminist Advertising Major?

Sometimes, in my liberal arts classes, I lie about my major:

“Hi, I’m Rachel and I’m studying. . . journalism.”

Don’t get me wrong: I love every second of my classes, drool over beautiful work in portfolios, and follow agencies religiously. Advertising seems like the greatest game I could ever play, full of opportunities to solve problems for people in creative, beautiful ways. But a nagging voice in my head still asks: “what are the consequences?” How will the work I create affect the environment, culture and other people?

These are hard questions, and I won’t pretend I’ve answered them. Advertising is difficult. It is difficult in the way it intersects with my identity. It is difficult in the way it interacts with society. Yet I hear industry horror stories, critique problematic content and still think every day: this is for me. The thrill of the difficulty and the responsibility to address these challenges keeps me around.

As a women’s studies minor (and full-time nerd), I’m no stranger to feminist critiques of advertising. Jean Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly has a point: historically, women have been grossly objectified and unfairly targeted by the advertising industry. Countless studies rightly lampoon the industry for hypersexualization and objectification of women and girls.

Beyond that, the industry’s workplace culture is hard to reconcile with my feminism. Though I’m not an aspiring creative, it disturbs me that just 11.5% of creative directors are women (and don’t even get me started on the pay gap). Though I am personally unfazed by agency concierges and 24/7 work-weeks, I recognize that the industry is, at best, unsupportive of women who want to have a family.

Whether it serves as a cultural mirror, catalyst, or both, advertising is inextricably linked with the patriarchy I’m determined to resist. At the same time, the industry’s reliance on ideas and constant innovation empowers me.

I love Droga5’s recent spots for the YMCA, and tear up every time I see a “Thank You, Mom” P&G ad from W+K. Good advertising is always powerful, and sometimes it is truly meaningful. Agencies can also turn that emotion into a call for action. Consider 72andSunny’s recent move to embed brand citizenship into all their teams and prioritize social good in their messaging (“Dairy Done Right,” their campaign for Tillamook promoting transparency in the dairy industry, comes to mind).  These bright spots give me hope, but I still have reservations.

I’m all for aligning marketing with activism, but when I view these efforts through a critical lens, I wonder: what happens when brand messages don’t align with their practices? Can sustainable brand citizenship be used as a PR stunt for systems that are actually not good citizens? When we tell compelling stories about social change, are they truthful?

The feminist scholar in me is skeptical, but the constructive optimist is exhilarated. When data, visuals, insight and emotion come together to create a great campaign, it is truly powerful. Perhaps critical thinking and the advertising industry can synthesize in a similar way to effect change beyond the surface.  

In the conflict between “Rachel the Feminist” and “Rachel the Advertiser,” I see possibility. It’s still uncomfortable, but that’s ok. Advertising is difficult, and that’s why I’m ready to take it on.