Focus Group Feminism: You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby, in Media and Advertising

Have a cigarette to celebrate.

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Photo by Milan Popovic on Unsplash

In 1968, the Philip Morris company launched an ad campaign specifically targeted to women to sell their new product, Virginia Slims, under the slogan “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

The print campaigns featured stylish (and slim, of course slim) women in catalog style spreads; they could just as easily be selling clothing were it not for the cigarettes held sophisticatedly between their fingers. Sophistication, style, glamour. All the things a liberated women should aspire to emulate.

The television ads were along the same vein, often telling a story of what it was like before the women’s rights movement when women were punished for smoking, and how much better things are now that they can do whatever they please. To celebrate, have a Virginia Slim, the woman’s cigarette, fit for delicate fingers in snazzy thin packs that fit right in your purse! Slimmer than the fat cigarettes made for men’s fingers, because don’t you deserve something just for you?

They also feature the following jingle:

You’ve come a long way, baby
To get where you’ve got to today
You’ve got your own cigarette now, baby
You’ve come a long, long way

My personal favorite ad from this collection is one in which a woman cuts away fabric from her turn-of-the-century restrictive dress to transform it into a 1970s crop top and bell-bottom jeans. The ad has a male narrator thrown in for good measure — most of them do — creating an inescapable amount of condescension masquerading as empowerment.

Putting aside for a moment the absurdity of juxtaposing suffragettes with a purported smoking ban for women, assigning gender at all to cigarette brands has an interesting history. The Marlboro Man, that rugged man’s man cowboy, was introduced in 1954 (again by the Philip Morris company) to sell filtered cigarettes to men. Marlboro cigarettes were originally marketed almost exclusively to women, as filtered cigarettes were seen as “feminine”, and so through the magic of advertising, the Philip Morris company was able to reverse this perception to appeal to a broader demographic. Not fourteen years later, they reintroduced the idea of a “woman’s cigarette” to the marketplace and asserted that this is a means to celebrate women’s hard-won battles in first- and second-wave feminism.

Both of these ad campaigns were incredibly effective, and researchers mark an increase in smoking among teenage girls that correlated with a rise in sales of brands marketed to women, including Virginia Slims.

In CNN’s retrospective on The Seventies, feminist and filmmaker Jean Kilbourne stated:

I call this “focus group feminism”; let’s check off some boxes to appeal to a popular movement of the day in order to sell more product, more tickets, more ad space. But…it works. Virginia Slims leaned heavily on linking their brand to women’s empowerment.

While we can sit back and laugh at a condescending cigarette ad from the 1970s, condescension is still embedded into our media today. We may not have male narrators speaking in transatlantic accents assuring us that we can do whatever we want, but by Jove, take a closer look at marketing efforts in the last few years that purport to be empowering.

Back in early 2017, the trailer for Transformers: The Last Knight was playing before just about every major blockbuster release. I am mostly indifferent towards the Transformers franchise; I haven’t seen one in theaters since whichever one came out in the summer of 2011. So the trailers don’t bother me; the movies don’t bother me. Nothing about this franchise registers on my radar.

Until this trailer for The Last Knight, when the female protagonist, a teenage whiz kid, speaks directly to us, the audience, and asserted that, “I fight like a girl? Yeah, I fight like a girl.”

This minor incident was one in a long line of eyeroll-inducing corporate attempts to appeal to the lowest common denominator of female empowerment in the interest of selling me something. This kind of pandering often gets a pass, or else why would they keep doing it? It’s not enough to have a strong character; Transformers points out the strong female character to make sure we don’t miss it, which we wouldn’t, almost as an atonement for the way they framed Megan Fox in the first two movies. Despite Megan Fox’s character being a strong, competent woman with actual relevant skills to contribute to the film, she is constantly, overtly, overwhelmingly framed as a sex object. But The Last Knight trailer functions as a hollow overcorrection in an industry saturated with thin stock characters the marketing team tries to convince us are groundbreaking.

Similarly, when corporations tie in their products to social movements, it can either blow up in their faces or else they find praise from said social movements. But however ubiquitous the movement, however secretive the marketing, the fact of the matter remains that we are at the mercy of corporate advertising, no matter how many dollars they claim to pledge to “making a difference.”

On a smaller scale, women’s issues, namely body issues, are a popular topic for advertisers. Dove has built their “Real Beauty” campaign around this. Everyone remembers that video (read: advertisement) from a few years ago that was framed as a social experiment, in which women would first describe themselves to a forensic artist, and then a stranger they’d met earlier that day would describe them to the forensic artist. The women were then shown the difference between the two sketches, i.e. the difference in how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us. The takeaway message is that we are harder on ourselves than other people are, and that “you are more beautiful than you think.”

Brought to you by Dove. Buy our age-defying lotion and cellulite cream.

I’m not going to knock Dove too hard, as their whole rebranding has resulted in the Dove Self-Esteem Project, which I think is moving us towards a healthier space for advertising. Plus, the cellulite cream was discontinued, and they mainly sell lotions and shampoo that don’t shame us for having different skin and hair textures.

I’m just here to point out the irony, and ask us all why sometimes we need to hear a message like this, and why that message coming from an advertiser resonates, when the beauty product industry has helped create the problem it now attempts to fix.

I muddle advertising and media portrayals together because these are the things that surround us. That Transformers trailer is advertising after all, and movie itself is a veritable parade of product placement after product placement. After all, product placement is a part of the entire franchise’s storied past, not just a Michael Bay invention. If anything, his use of product placement could be a clever callback to how the cartoon popped into existence, but I think that’s giving Michael a little too much credit. His use of focus group feminism in The Last Knight trailer is just one more trick the marketing team pulls to get as many people in the theater as possible. Advertising and media are inextricably linked together. And our perceptions of culture can absolutely be filtered through advertising and media.

There is a right way to do this. I’m appreciative of Wonder Woman (2017) for giving us a film that was all empowerment, all the time, but it wasn’t overtly, ham-fistedly so. Diana Prince is strong, feminine, cunning, caring, all those things and more! But there was ne’er a wink and a nod to the audience just in case we don’t get it, and ne’er a cringeworthy line like “Fight like a girl!”

I’m appreciative of Black Panther (2018) for having a fairly egalitarian society represented, in which women and men contributed to science, military, and culture on equal footing, and it was never commented on by the film. Shuri is the tech genius; she has been and will be. Not once in that movie were we treated to any of the male characters shouting, “Gosh, you’re not like other girls! Look at how techie you are!” This film is smarter than that, and gives the audience the credit it deserves. I don’t want to hear “you’re not like other girls” when a female character is doing something competent and helpful.

It’s that classic “show, don’t tell” piece of writing advice. Ripley from Alien (1979) just is. We aren’t told her motivations and how super badass she is…she just is. This is in large part thanks to the screenwriters’ decision to initially write all the parts as unisex, with no gender in mind, so the casting department could cast whoever fit the part best, regardless of gender. So while there is a case to be made that Ripley may be closer to a male character, but a woman, moreso than a female character, but a man, the unique writing decision challenges us to ask why we associate some traits with men and some traits with women. Why do we gender unisex characteristics? By taking gender out of the equation, there isn’t really a hamfisted “Gosh, you’re not like other girls!” nor a “Careful there, honey! Let me hold that gun.” By taking gender out of the equation, all of the characters coexist on equal footing.

One of my favorite movies is His Girl Friday (1940), a gem of the screwball comedy genre. Screwball comedies are a genre of romantic comedy from the golden age of Hollywood in which love stories are explored, and spoofed, through a comedic lens. The films are almost always structured as a battle of the sexes wherein the woman has the upper hand, characterized by quick, witty dialogue and sometimes, not always, feature a remarriage plot. The central couple of His Girl Friday are on equal footing, with the balance slightly tilted in Rosalind Russell’s Hildy’s favor. They match quip for quip, with Cary Grant’s Walter attempting to keep his best reporter on the staff for a big story, but also convince her to come back to him. A precursor to Alien’s gender-blind screenwriting, the original draft of this film wasn’t a remarriage plot, it was actually a buddy comedy originally envisioned as a straightforward remake of The Front Page (1931). A Cary Grant vehicle, the film would star two fast-talking newspapermen on the cusp of a big story. But during casting, director Howard Hawks’s secretary read Hildy’s lines, and they liked it so much that they cast Rosalind Russell in the part. With minimal rewrites, much of the dialogue remained intact, while the resolution and history between Hildy Johnson and Walter Burns was changed to fit into the screwball comedy structure.

So, have we come a long way, baby? The seeds were sown further back than His Girl Friday, and yet the Virginia Slims campaign assures us that now is the time for women’s empowerment. Never before have strong women had their day. Never before has “fight like a girl” been a positive statement. Not before a male marketing team stepped in to tell us so.

These types of ad campaigns slide us back. They are hiccups begging to be reclaimed.

The Virginia Slims campaign was not the worst of the worst in the 1970s. The CNN retrospective surveys misogynist advertising throughout the decade, the who’s who of Gloria Steinem’s Ms. magazine’s “No Comment” section. Sidenote: Gloria Steinem’s look was often co-opted for print ads in this campaign. No secrets about what type of imagery they were trying to evoke.

And the tagline “You’ve come a long way, baby” is embedded into our media culture. It’s run the gamut from tongue-in-cheek reference to condescending insult when it is referenced. Part of me thinks this line has now become one of those out-of-context lines that people know, they’ve heard, but they don’t know where they’ve heard it originally. Maybe they first heard Dr. Cox say it to Elliot in Scrubs, maybe they heard Michael Scott say it to a group of Dunder Mifflin ladies in The Office. In the former, we laugh and cheer for the man who said it; the latter, we know we are supposed to cringe at every word out of Michael’s mouth. It’s been divorced from its original context.

Well, I’m here to remind you all that is was originally uttered by a male voiceover speaking in a transatlantic accent around fifty years ago while a woman cut up her clothes to expose more skin.

“You know, I have this awful paranoid thought that feminism was mostly invented by men so that they could like, fool around a little more. You know, women, free your minds, free your bodies, sleep with me. We’re all happy and free as long as I can f*ck as much as I want.” — Before Sunrise

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Writer from Boston, MA //

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