Sell like a girl

Instagram ‘fempires’ and the rise of the activist-influencer

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DOES ANYONE ELSE remember the Bic for Her debacle? 

In 2012, French manufacturer Société Bic SA launched a range of ‘fashion pens’ targeted at the more delicate writer. No longer did the weaker sex need to struggle under the weight of just any biro. Boasting ‘beautifully smooth’ ink, a soft grip and a moulded plastic shaft overlaid with floral motifs, the range was designed to ‘fit a woman’s hand’ and cost up to 70 per cent more than their black and blue counterparts – a steep price to pay, you might observe, yet apparently worth it for the ‘all day comfort’. 

Backlash was immediate and widespread. 

Although one memorable Amazon reviewer remarked that ‘Ponk pen didnt write at all, and pirple pen only lasted for a day’, quality itself was not the problem. (Bic, in operation since 1945, knows a thing or two about how to make biros.) Rather, in all their kitschy pastel splendour, the Bic for Her pens epitomised gendered marketing in its most hackneyed and opportunistic format: not only do women have to ‘weather that sinking feeling’ of being targeted in patronising ways, Lindy West pointed out at the time, but we often have to pay more for the privilege. 

THE QUESTION OF how to sell stuff to women has occupied advertisers since at least the late 1800s, when the acceleration of mass consumption and shopping as a leisure activity identified women as an increasingly large and powerful consumer base. Writing in the interwar years, home economist and influential market researcher Christine Frederick claimed women had fast become ‘the heart and center of the merchandizing world’, more susceptible to advertising because – get this – we enjoy it

Keeping in mind the intervening century, and the fact that I encountered this sentence in a digitised but dog-eared copy of Frederick’s out-of-print Selling Mrs Consumer, I’m tempted to dismiss the observation as a relic of the era’s virulent sexism. But the conflation of advertising with enjoyment is an intriguing one, something that flares in the boggy recesses of my brain as I skim the comments beneath a paid partnership on Instagram late one night. Sandwiched between a photo dump of selfies and a reel capturing soundbites from a recent podcast, the promo passes as unremarkable on a platform so deeply colonised by paid features that approximately every third post and story – at least on my own count – is now explicitly advertorial. What causes me to pause before thumbing past to the bottomless pit of backlit squares below, though, is not the product, nor the intimacy of the woman speaking directly into her phone camera, locking eyes with whichever follower out of thousands happens to stop for twenty seconds. It’s a single reply that gets me: ‘Even watching an ad with you is lovely 😊’. It’s the smiley face, the unexpected sweetness of it, a token of goodwill between two women, one who’s endorsing a premium mattress and the other who seems to perceive it as just another form of engaging content. 

MANY OF US already recognise ‘femvertising’ in its more traditional and most obviously insidious manifestation: advertising that instrumentalises empowerment to promote products and generate greater brand engagement, popularised in strategies such as Dove’s Real Beauty campaign. We may reasonably condemn it as an affected or confected strain of activism, one that exists primarily for the purpose of selling. So, what could be more potent – more effective – than a seemingly more sustained and authentic type of activism almost imperceptibly entwined with marketing, the constant layering of advertorial with ideological content? 

Enter stage right (or Instagram story left): the activist-influencer. 

Check their bio, and an activist-influencer will describe themselves foremost as something else: author, host, content creator.  

They’ve amassed large social-media followings off the back of best-selling books and the TV appearances, festival panels and radio segments that follow. They generate incisive and inventive content critiquing patriarchy, class and privilege, social injustice and law reform. 

They just happen to sell stuff, too. 

Vibrators, meal boxes, cleaning kits, alcohol delivery services, electric toothbrushes, ‘cosmedical’ procedures, ethical clothing lines, handmade jewellery, brightly coloured underwear. Whether paid partnership or spontaneous ‘unboxing’, their ads – usually ephemeral media that appear and recede within twenty-four hours – are couched in the language of friendship and solidarity, interspersed with pet photos, pithy film reviews, reposted videos from TikTok and biting commentary on male celebrities. 

And look, I get it. 

These sorts of endorsements – the incidental or more deliberate ways we intervene in one another’s buying decisions and habits – are already so tightly imbricated with women’s friendship that a favourite author gushing about a comfortable and stylish bra (#kindlygifted) or a luminescent blush may not even land as strikingly different, let alone ethically questionable. A few weeks ago, I excitedly messaged my mother to recommend a $22 foundation from Priceline, a cheaper alternative to the tinted moisturiser I was due to repurchase from Sephora. A woman stopped me in a supermarket after work the other day to ask where my gingham dress was from, and I was only too glad to divulge the label. 

If anyone’s going to sell me shit, I reason, it may as well be a feminist: our virtual ‘bestie’ or ‘big sister’. We’re all implicated in the inescapable circuits of buying and selling anyway. This is just women looking out for women, linking arms as we negotiate the inevitable conditions of our lives – the capitalist matrix from which we cannot simply unplug ourselves. Maybe someone with a powerful and progressive platform is better able to cut through the noise, raise the profile of women-owned businesses, stake out a place for themselves in which the considerable investment of intellectual and creative labour involved in cultural production or political activism is remunerated in a meaningful way. 

But something about this seems a bit more complicated. Even my most valiant attempts to defend it leave me feeling an unmistakable itch. 

You know the itch. 

Somewhere, in the utensil-clogged depths of a kitchen cupboard or drawer, you probably have a little round Happy Chopper that you were guilted into buying at a Tupperware party, not only because you hate dicing onions (who doesn’t?) but because it was the cheapest yet most substantial item you could purchase without leaving empty-handed. You sat at the party obediently oohing and ahhing over melon scoops and microwave-safe storage containers all the while wondering on some subliminal level about an indistinguishable line, the point at which you traversed the boundary between friend/colleague/acquaintance and sales conversion. 

So, what happens, I want to know, when that line dissolves completely? When the flattening properties of so-called ‘content’ render the boundaries all but null? When activism is reimagined as a commodity like any other? When the price for engaging with it is absorbing a barrage of appeals to the consuming self? When the refusal of that relationship is then cast as an unappreciative sort of freeloading? (‘You can unfollow at any time! Or subscribe to my Patreon – no ads ever!’) 

IF I SOUND conflicted, it’s because I am. Expecting women to dismantle capitalism when they so rarely get to benefit from it is a hard ask. But when the best advertising doesn’t feel like advertising, I remain suspicious of the more sophisticated ways in which we’re invited to celebrate consumption as a way to be ‘radical’. 

We might laugh at glittery pens or roll our eyes at sudsy slogans, but some bids for our hard-earned dollars are tougher to recognise and reject, not because they’re always less conspicuous but because they’re styled to seem somehow better, more palatable, more enjoyable. 

What we’re left with is that familiar sinking feeling. It’s in the curious suturing of progressive politics to normative femininity. It’s in the accumulation of privilege for a few at the cost of many others. It’s in a transactional dynamic that accentuates the very imbalances feminism critiques. 

British ad tycoon David Ogilvy once said that ‘advertising is only evil when it advertises evil things’. 

But maybe, just maybe, some good things shouldn’t be sold. 

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