How brands tarnished International Women's Day

How brands tarnished International Women's Day

The flood of marketing activity surrounding IWD obscures the radical roots of this day.

Every July, the US marks National Ice Cream Day, an official holiday that president Ronald Reagan declared in 1984 to boost the dairy industry. 

Hallmark invented National Friendship Day in 1919 to increase sales of greeting cards. 

In 2003, underwear retailer Freshpair created National Underwear Day. And a meal-delivery service in California started National Avocado Day in 2017, helping brands such as Chipotle sell more avocado-based products. 

With these and other examples infiltrating my social media feeds and inbox – seemingly every week, I receive a press release offering "expert comment" on the latest holiday I’ve never heard of – I began to question whether another upcoming date on the calendar, International Women’s Day, was actually just a marketing ploy to get me to buy a better bra or skincare product. 

Much like the aforementioned events, International Women’s Day brings a flurry of activity from brands – but even more amplified. In recent years, Procter & Gamble rebranded washing-up liquid Fairy to Fair to make a point about gender equality in household labour; The Body Shop hosted a "female empowerment" pop-up featuring free makeovers, facials, massages and hair-braiding; BrewDog released a pink beer for girls; McDonald’s flipped its logo to make it look like a W; and Gap printed inspirational quotes from famous women on its T-shirts. I could go on.

On top of that, in the days and weeks leading up to International Women’s Day, Campaign receives numerous pitches from agencies and brands touting the women in their business, with offers to comment on gender equality and female empowerment. As I’ve heard some women in the industry say: why does it take a certain date for companies to put them forward and aren’t there any other topics they would like to speak about besides their gender? 

All of this brings to mind the character played by Kristin Scott Thomas in series two of Fleabag, who, after receiving a "best woman in business" award, calls her prize "infantilising". "It’s ghettoising. It’s a subsection of success. It’s the children’s table of awards," she tells Fleabag. 

As I come across yet another purple-tinged campaign or activation, timed for this week and then fading as quickly as you can recite a feminist slogan, International Women’s Day has started to feel like the children’s table of holidays. What may have started out innocently enough, with marketers wanting to celebrate women, has devolved into a whirl of hashtagging, bandwagon-jumping and tokenism, clouding the true meaning of this day. 

But as much as it might seem that way now, International Women’s Day was not invented by brands. Its origins are actually quite radical and can be traced back to socialist and labour movements of the early 20th century. The first official International Women’s Day was observed in 1911, when more than one million people across Europe held rallies calling for women's rights and an end to discrimination.

Less than a week later, on 25 March, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York killed more than 140 female workers, most of them immigrants. Subsequently, the focus of International Women’s Day in those early years became the plight of working women. 

In 1917, in one of the most significant International Women’s Day demonstrations, Russian women protested against war, food shortages, poor living conditions and autocracy, leading to the tsar’s abdication and a provisional right to vote for women. Decades later, in 1975, the United Nations made International Women’s Day an official observance, with the aim of highlighting women’s issues around the world, especially in developing countries.  

Understanding these roots puts International Women’s Day in a different perspective. It is a reminder that we have to look deeper and wider for where gender inequality still exists – and it does, even if that isn’t always apparent in circles of privilege or in the ad industry’s bubble.

Who is this day for, then? It is not only for the women who will use the #IWD hashtag on Twitter, wear a slogan T-shirt or buy your product. It is not just for women who fit into palatable categories and marketers’ target demographics. 

Of course it’s positive to celebrate women and to take a moment to remind ourselves how far we’ve come. I know from speaking to them that many marketers and advertising creatives do have good intentions and have made real efforts to improve how they represent and communicate with women. Those changes are welcome and necessary. 

But, unlike National Ice Cream Day, which is a good excuse to be self-indulgent, International Women’s Day should look outwards, rather than reducing it to a superficial or fleeting gesture. Maybe, like the real public holidays that haven’t been invented by a corporation, it could also be a time for reflection and connection. Sometimes that calls for a celebration, and sometimes it means being quiet and making space for other people. 

As I write this, I’ve just seen a business invite people to take selfies and post them with this year’s IWD hashtag, #EachforEqual. I wonder, what will all the selfies and hashtags mean when we wake up to another milestone on the marketer’s calendar? 

Picture: Getty Images