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Is Fighting Stereotypes Fair Play in Beauty Commercials?

December 20, 2013

There are two sides to pretty much every story. The general consensus is that Pantene's new ad, "Labels Against Women," makes this point simply and clearly. Carefully chosen captions reveal how males and females in identical job roles are perceived differently.

The controversy comes around whether a shampoo maker should be making such a statement. As Ally Van Schilt observes in lipmag.com, "entrenched double standards" are emphasized by the "ready applicability" of products which create "perfectly flawless and shiny hair," notably perpetuating "pervasive gender stereotypes."

[Image: Pantene ad]

Those differences are illustrated simply in the commercials. The fact that both men and women can be successful in the same role but perceived differently is illustrated just by changing a single-word caption. "Boss" becomes "bossy"; "persuasive" becomes "pushy"; "dedicated" becomes "selfish"; while "neat" becomes "vain".

But others also view the issue differently. While an article on Time's website said the ad "deftly breaks down the double standards men and women face in the workplace," some of the 100+ comments insisted the ad perpetuated rather than negated stereotypes.

Back at lipmag, Ms. Schilt saw the "concepts so well articulated and presented so neatly in a mainstream commercial for a large, multi-national and instantly recognizable company. ... It's a great marketing campaign in that it has garnered attention for its direct confrontation of a very real issue, as well as its ready applicability to their products that is new."

Trendhunter.com says stereotypes are broken down "by making them clear, and cleverly associating the word 'shine' with its glossy shampoo." While noting that commercials "have often been used to reinforce gender stereotypes," IBNlive goes on to say that this ad, created to end labels against women, generated Twitter descriptions such as "inspiring" and "extraordinary," demonstrating "its impact on the minds of viewers."

On several sites, Facebook COO and Lean In author, Sheryl Sandberg, is widely quoted: "This is one of the most powerful videos I have ever seen illustrating how when women and men do the same things, they are seen in completely different ways. Really worth watching. Lean In prize of the day for sure."


Discussion Questions:

What do you think of beauty products such as Pantene embracing marketing messages around unfair sexual stereotypes? Is Pantene trying to push political correctness too far for its own gain or identifying an important issue that needs to be addressed?

While we value unfettered opinion, we urge you to show respect and courtesy for people or companies about whom you comment. Keep in mind that this is a public, professional business discussion. RetailWire reserves the right to edit or refuse the publication of remarks that we deem unsuitable. We may also correct for unintended spelling and grammatical errors.

Instant Poll:

How would you grade Pantene's "Labels Against Women" commercial?


With Pantene and other beauty products, the customer base is women. It is only natural that they produce ads that resonate with women.

The ad points out that reaction to the same actions being performed by men and women are, or can be, perceived differently by both men and women. This does two things that I believe appeal to their target market. It shows that Pantene understands the issues that their customers face, and highlights the need for change. Isn't the first what an ad is supposed to do? The second is a great bonus.

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Steve Montgomery, President, b2b Solutions, LLC

I found the commercial to be very creative. They took a negative sexual stereotype and turned it into a positive stereotype. A win is a win, regardless of the method of achieving it. I do wonder how the commercial would be perceived if instead of flawlessly beautiful actresses they used ordinary looking women. Of all the unfair stereotypes, any of those associated with being too good looking is probably something most men or women wouldn't mind tolerating.

David Livingston, Principal, DJL Research


Beauty products are all about being beautiful. The target audience appears to be women blessed with beauty who may be experiencing some negativity due to stereotyping. By all means, Pantene should be concerned about the same issues as those who identify with their product.

Hy Louis, Tea buyer, Wong Imports

Pantene, like Dove, is conveying a definite understanding of, and empathy for its core customer.

In placing the emphasis on societal stereotypes, and by extension, asking the viewer to give this thought, there is almost no focus on the brand itself - a rarity in today's advertising noise.

I don't see this as Pantene pushing political correctness as much as it is a more evolved brand message, boldly shedding light on an issue so often preferred to be ignored.

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Jeff Hall, President, Second To None

I don't see that the Pantene ad demonstrates that buying and using its product can, or will, alleviate any of the perceived stereotypes or unfairness. I guess if social commentary is the way they want to spend their ad dollars that's fine, but I personally don't like either the ad or the concept of the ad. In my old fashioned world, advertisements are supposed to sell product by pointing out the arrival of something new that I absolutely need, or (for things I buy regularly) to address why their product is better than other choices I could make.


New day, new age.

Social entrepreneurs and social responsibility is here, and here to stay. The concept of politically-correct faceless "neutral" companies of the past is just a facade with Millennials who are crowdfunding startups, signing online petitions, and backing their support for business that align with their values and opinion on social issues.

This commercial was designed for social influencers to market virally to a target audience, and I have no doubt it will get the results it aimed for.

Ed Dunn, Founder, (Stealth Operation)

There are two questions here: (1) are CPG ads the proper venue to engage in social/philosophical debates? And (2) is this an effective ad for Pantene?
And the two answers are both the same: "Probably not." In this case, the specific example illustrates the problem: it tells us nothing about the product or why we might want to use it - not to mention being more than a little ironic, since "beauty" products reinforce the very gender stereotypes being highlighted - and contributes little (if anything) to any broader discussion. It will have brand-building value only to the extent that - years from now - people say "Oh yeah, that Pantene ad."


I like the idea that brands are moving beyond the functional and often obvious features and benefits approach to one that communicates what the brand represents and its values.

I think we will see more brands adopt this kind of approach.

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Matthew Keylock, Senior Vice President, New Business Development and Partnerships, dunnhumbyUSA

It is amazing to me that people take the time to examine the motivations of a company that chooses to spend scarce marketing dollars on a message that seeks to engage viewers in a discussion on an important issue. We should simply be grateful, not critical.

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Mike Osorio, Senior VP Organizational Change Management, DFS Group

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