International Awareness Days: For Sale ?

2018’s International Women’s Day mantra was ‘Press for Progress’, a theme created to challenge gender parity and to join the momentum of the #TimesUp and #MeToo Campaigns. It should have driven home the message of the continuing struggle for women’s rights across cultures and communities. Instead, I was besieged by a barrage of brands promoting this message in line with products and in-store events. My Instagram feed was inundated with images of historical and contemporary female activists that appeared to have no tangible link or connection to the brand prompting them. It felt like every major and minor brand out there had sought an opportunity to raise their profile or market a product around the ‘Press for Progress’ hashtag.

This has made me question the morality of how easy it is for companies to seek commercial gain from global movements that should be so much more than a day to drive sales or to increase brand awareness.

A quick Google search showed articles on every major fashion site, from Vogue[1] to Harpers Bazaar[2], of lists of items to buy this International Women’s Day. Some included brands aligned with the International Women’s Day trust directly, or others who had collaborated with an alternative female-led charity of choice.   But some items left me baffled. I was confused as to how purchasing a £5 ‘feminist’ pin from Topshop or a £175 sequin, lip motif t-shirt by Markus Lupfer raised the ‘Press for Progress’ message.  So why were they on the list?

Net-A-Porter had collaborative products from established brands such as Ganni and Off White, where profits went to the Women for Women International. It’s commendable to give away profits for the purpose of raising awareness, but I question whether a £225 crop t-shirt with ‘Woman’ emblazoned in millennial pink font really highlights the gender pay gap or women’s parity issues.  These were products created in line with an associated charity, whereas elsewhere other businesses were simply adding a gimmicky line to their product mix to drive sales or capitalise on a positive message marketing opportunity.

Brewdog launched a pink bottled beer on the 8th of March to much mockery by the press, although they claimed that the beer is ‘sarcastic’, and created to raise the issue of the gender pay gap. By offering it at 20% less than the regular price, the same as the publicised figure for the disparity of pay between sexes, the campaign fell short. With only 25% of ale drinkers being female, this appeared a marketing gimmick to feminise their product and attract a new clientele.

An international household food name was a little less subversive, by simply turning upside down those famous golden arches at one of its outlets to form a W.  McDonald’s also released a commercial, telling the story of an entrepreneurial McDonald’s restaurant owner. Patricia Wiliams, a black African American woman who overcame her poor upbringing and struggles as a single mother to now own 18 McDonald’s franchises alongside her daughters.  Starting and ending with the phrase “McDonald’s proudly supporting International Women’s Day”, including plenty of shots of signature burgers and those iconic golden arches. But to my knowledge, no proceeds were raised for International Women’s Day in the airing of this commercial or sales of a Big Mac.[3]

For brands today it seems to be increasingly hard to draw the line between co-option and support. Erin Keeley, CMO at the ad agency Mono states “The on-going #MeToo and #TimesUp movements may make it seem like celebrating IWD is a no-brainer for brands, but in fact, the campaigns against sexual harassment and sexism have raised the bar.”

I wondered if organisations should seek to celebrate International Women’s Day unless they are progressing women’s rights themselves? Do they have pay equality corporate practices?  Do they allow working mothers flexible hours, or deliver childcare services on site? Is aligning themselves with a charity for this one day enough in the age of information and transparency?  How far away are we from this annual day of promoting women’s rights becoming something more resembling the commercialisation of  Mothers Day or Valentines Day? By the turn of the new decade will we be sending cards and buying giftable products with ‘Feminist’ emblazoned across them? By brands capitalising on product, do these events downgrade their effectiveness and symbolism to communicate their original message? It’s a tightrope to be walked and only time will tell who remains balanced and who trips up. As this conversation gains traction we’d love to hear your thoughts – you may also like to read more from our #roomie Libby who wrote a piece reflecting on this conversation from a New York point of view: ‘Strong is the new black.’




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