Pantene Is a Voice for Women? Hardly

Is there anything more sexist than the notion that professional women need a hair care brand to help them learn to 'be strong and shine'?

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Jin Lee / Bloomberg / Getty Images

The Pantene Philippines video that’s gone viral—thanks in large part to a ringing endorsement from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg who gave it the “Lean In prize of the day” on the social network—is indeed a powerful statement of the inequity, workplace and otherwise, between how society perceives men and women. Running with the tagline, “Don’t let labels hold you back. Be strong and shine,” the video points out that where a man might be perceived as “persuasive,” a woman is “pushy.” While a man is a “boss,” a woman is “bossy.”

Indeed, these double standards often ring true. And yet, there’s considerable irony in a beauty brand using feminism to move product. And that is, undeniably, the overarching intent here: to sell shampoo. While one message might be a warning against the danger of gender stereotyping, what the video also says, in no uncertain terms, is that looks matter, above all. You might be on the receiving end of derision and disdain from colleagues who’d accept, or even praise, the same behavior from a man, but no worries. At least your hair will look good.

(WATCHPantene Breaks Down Every Sexist Workplace Stereotype in One Ad)

But the real problem with Pantene’s PSA-as-advertisement is that it serves the dangerous purpose of pitting, once again, women against men. A caption beneath the video reads, “70 percent of men think that women need to downplay their personality to be accepted.” Where men are “smooth,” the video tells us, women are “show-offs.” Where men are “dedicated,” women are “selfish.” To suggest that women are the only ones being discriminated against, however, is as dangerous as suggesting that good hair can help them end such inequity. It’s also inaccurate. A study commissioned by staffing agency Kelly Services found this year that nearly 35% of men said they believed they had experienced sex-based discrimination over the past five years at work. The numbers for women? 33.3%.

It’s also inaccurate to suggest that women are undeserving of criticism. Perhaps female leaders are bossy, or pushy. They may need to be. Or they may not. Either way, studies show that women can be workplace bullies: A 2011 survey by the American Management Association found that 95% of 1,000 working women polled believe they had been undermined by another woman at some point in their careers, while a 2008 University of Toronto study of nearly 1,800 U.S. employees that found women working under a female supervisor reported more distress and symptoms of physical stress than those working under a male supervisor.

Pantene’s tack isn’t surprising. But it’s not the whole story, and it’s certainly not genuine. Sure: 70% of men may think women need to be different than they are. But this ad targets women, who don’t need Pantene to tell them how they’re judged differently; they live it every day. And by speaking up for women in such a manner, Pantene is reinforcing the idea that women need to be spoken up for.

After all, is there anything more sexist than the notion that professional women need a hair care brand—or anyone, really—to help them learn to “be strong and shine”?

MOREDear Beauty Brands: Stop Using Feminism as Your Marketing Strategy


Ad hominem much? I haven't yet seen any article that praised the ad without acknowledging that it is ultimately about generating revenue. As such, I see no value to the points made in the first half of this article - people KNOW what the sender wants, but they're focusing on the message content. 

As to the other main issue raised, pitting men against women... well, this is a mindless criticism that can be raised against any content that focuses on one particular issue of discrimination. To say "mentioning discrimination against females is bad because you leave out discrimination against males" is tantamount to saying "all discussion of discrimination should always look at the entire issue". That's a fine sentiment for an actual discourse, but not so worthwhile for a short TV ad. It simply isn't possible to cover the gamut of issues when you are focusing on communicating a particular message.

Nobody was saying that women are undeserving of criticism. The point was clearly made that given an otherwise identical situation, women are more likely to be negatively labelled than men. This is something that is reasonably well supported by research (e.g. Berdahl, 2007; Eagly, 2000) and is a relative statement. The existence of women who deserve to be criticised has no bearing on whether such gender stereotypes are morally ok. The research cited is presented without a comparison to the relevant male sample (women being undermined by another woman) or purely correlative in nature, which may well be accounted for by other factors than the actual performance of the female supervisor (e.g. people having a female supervisor might be more likely to be working in more stressful jobs, such as caring professions).

And what is the point of the statement that "Pantene is reinforcing the idea that women need to be spoken up for"? Of course women need to be spoken up for! So do men, blacks, whites, straights, gays, bisexuals, transgenders and any other social group you care to name. How is that negative? Is the implication that Pantene is somehow gendered male and therefore perpetuates some kind of "weak female, protector male" stereotype? But why would anyone conclude that?

The marketing strategy here doesn't seem to be suggesting a causal link between Pantene and being strong, because that is manifestly ridiculous and counter to the whole thrust of the ad. Instead, it seems to be about forming associations between feelings generated by the ad and Pantene as a brand. This is a typical marketing strategy that the vast majority of advertisements use, as reprehensible as it may be. By that coin, any product using such a strategy specifically targeted at women OR at men is sexist.

Sorry, but I think this is just knee-jerk male advocacy. As a male, I often try to keep this viewpoint in mind and apply it, but here? It seems pointless.


In other news, no one should have a point of view other than you. Got it.


Pointless drivel.  Use or sale of shampoo/beauty products does not disqualify one from promoting gender equality.  And to that point, what are "real" feminists supposed to use to wash their hair? Boraxo??


Stellar job on this Peggy - Spanx is another major brand that deserves to be pained with this same brush.