Actually, That Pantene Ad Isn't Feminist

by Tori Telfer

The latest piece of ostensibly feminist beauty marketing to go viral is a video by Pantene, which "deftly breaks down the double standards men and women face in the workplace," according to Time. It's a very well-done little film. It shows, quite effectively, how a man in charge is termed a "boss," but a woman in charge is "bossy." A man strutting down the street is "smooth," but a woman who struts? "Show-off." Awful, right? The cruel semantic disparity rings so true that it's easy to see just how anti-feminist the video gets.

See, it's so well-filmed and the music is so pretty and the surface-level message ("Men and women aren't treated equally!") is so true that it's easy to forget that this Pantene video is a commercial. Say it with me: THIS VIDEO IS A COMMERCIAL.

Like any other commercial, it is intended to do one thing and one thing only: push product. If people treat the video as this great feminist message, that just furthers the success of the ad (hello, Facebook sharing!), which in turn sells more product.

In order to sell product, the ad pretends to be saying, "Girl, embrace your strong and capable self," when just beneath the surface, it's saying the exact opposite: "Girl, you won't be taken seriously in a man's world until your hair looks better." The end of the Pantene video shows a woman with bouncy, shiny, Pantene-conditioned hair walking happily across the street, while the music swells and the text across the screen reads, "Don't let labels hold you back. Be strong and shine."

Buy our product.

Buy Pantene, because it will make your hair shiny.

Buy Pantene to make your hair shiny, because that is the most important thing about you.

The irony here is just too perfect. "Don't let labels hold you back?" Cool, can someone embroider that onto a pillow and sell it on Etsy? This ad is all about the labels, specifically any label that spells out P-A-N-T-E-N-E. With this very special label, for the low low price of $5.54, women can finally "be strong," by "shining," which in this case is not referring to your beautiful inner light or the empowerment radiating out of your resplendent female face — it's referring to your hair. Aesthetics are still everything, if you're female. Your worth lies in your looks. And while this ad piggybacks on an affecting truth about male/female dynamics, that is it's real message — if you watch it long enough to see the Pantene logo pop up at the end.

The Dove "Real Beauty Sketches" video — sorry, advertisement — that was so popular this spring also banked on, and succeeded because of, a facade of feminism. It's so easy to tear up over the sad fact that women think of themselves as less attractive than they actually are that you almost miss the very tasteful, very tiny Dove logo at the end. You almost miss the disorienting rhetoric: girl, you're prettier than you think, and strangers agree with us, and we can make the problem go far, far away, as long as you purchase our Dove Nourishing Oil Care Leave-In Smoothing Cream.

Don't fall for marketing that's co-opted the lingo of feminism. The business behind this sort of feel-good, shareable, vaguely morally superior ad campaign doesn't care about you as a woman. It cares about your Facebook shares. It cares about your shampoo-brand loyalty. And above all, it cares — truly, madly, deeply — about your wallet.