As a journalist, there are two weeks of the year when I might as well have an auto-delete function for almost all pitch emails, adverts and press releases that arrive in my inbox. The first is the week leading up to Valentine’s Day, the second is the week before International Women’s Day.
The former may not surprise you. I’ve always thought that Valentine’s Day is a desperate revenue-boosting attempt by the flower and chocolate industries and is Moonpig, Hallmark and co’s way of bridging the gap between Christmas and Easter by convincing people that there really is no better way of expressing affection than a naff poem and pseudo-witty cartoon. The marketing material and contrived “research” that make the rounds basically serve no other purpose than to highlight how flaccid our relationships have become – or else how we’re destined for a life of grim solitude.
But I’ve come to feel equally frustrated with the publicity frenzy in the runup to 8 March, or IWD, as it’s become known in social media speak. On Monday I received an email from a PR on behalf of a company that makes dashcams (yes, dashcams), flogging extensive research purporting to demonstrate that women were more likely to be targets of road rage than men.
Tragic if true, but I’m failing to see why this is naturally relevant to International Women’s Day – a day which to my mind should celebrate the achievements and progress we’ve all made (both men and women) towards achieving gender equality. Further down the press release I learned that dashcams can provide irrefutable evidence of who’s at fault in an accident and that the dinky little devices can also stop motorists from coming to blows afterwards. A quick Google search tells me that a camera from the company can be yours for just £49.99. If International Women’s Day gifts were a thing, I’d definitely call this a bargain.
International Women’s Day is an opportunity to raise awareness of the barriers we’re still facing in our pursuit of gender parity. It’s an occasion to honour role models and trailblazers. In some places it’s a day of protest, but it shouldn’t be an excuse to try to link your own product or service to the cause in the most creative and tenuous way possible. If what you make or sell has no blindingly obvious link to women’s rights or gender equality then please don’t try to pretend otherwise. You become that person at the party who has so many opinions on everything that no one actually takes any of them seriously. Just let it go.
And yet so many companies still appear to think it’s in good taste to piggyback off IWD for commercial purposes. A vigilant friend who lives in India alerted me to a promotion from his bank offering women the chance to “shop till you drop with handpicked offers” on “this women’s day”. Because, as we all know, there’s no greater gift to a woman on a day that’s supposed to celebrate her rights than to reduce her to a feeble stereotype. Or perhaps you’d like to mark the day with a cut-price visit to the UK’s leading cosmetic dentist or hit up a personal trainer to the stars? You’re in luck because – especially for International Women’s Day – the deals on offer are basically too good to refuse.
I’ve heard it being described as “femvertising” and I think that’s bang on. Companies want to be seen to be furthering the noble feminist cause but only when it’s convenient, or when it might translate into a pleasant little financial bump. The irony, of course, is that the messaging often doesn’t even correspond to the practice. In 2017, German car maker Audi showed an advert during the Super Bowl featuring a father watching his daughter driving a go-kart while he worried about all the hurdles she may face during her life on account of her gender. It was supposed to draw attention to Audi’s commitment to providing equal opportunities regardless of gender, so it was inconvenient that many viewers noted that Audi’s six-person board at the time didn’t include a single woman.
The same year, US bank State Street unveiled the Fearless Girl statue which it had commissioned for display near Wall Street with a plaque engraved with the words, “Know the power of women in leadership”. Also in 2017, State Street found itself in a position of agreeing to pay $5m to settle charges that it had discriminated against female senior executives by paying them less than women and white colleagues.
So marketers of this world, listen up. This International Women’s Day, don’t be tempted to “femvertise”. It’s unflattering, narrow-minded and even a tad insulting. It will backfire and you’ll be left scrambling around, trying to convince everyone that you really, really aren’t sexist. Or stupid. Take my advice and handle 8 March the way you would a high-stakes poker game: only get involved if you know both the rules and the risks. Otherwise, perhaps focus on Valentine’s Day instead.
• Josie Cox is a columnist, reporter, commentator and broadcaster