Empowerment for Sale

“Yes You Can,” (Sprint), “Be All that You Can Be” (U.S. Army), “Because You’re Worth it,” (L’Oréal) in “Your World, Delivered” (AT&T). You’ve seen these new ads: pitches for products or services to let you “be yourself” or “take control” of some aspect of your life. It’s a new strategy called “empowerment marketing,” based on the premise that in media savvy age people are smarter about advertising and need to be approached in a way that flatters their evolved sensibilities. As a recent feature in Your Business put it, “Traditional marketing depends on creating anxiety in the customer in convincing her that she has a need that only the product or service sold can help her fill.”  In contrast, “Empowerment marketing subverts traditional marketing techniques by recasting the consumer as the hero who has the power to effect change and use the product or service being sold to achieve success.”[i]

Nice as this sounds, it is really a case of putting old wine in new bottles. The example Your Business uses is the familiar Nike “Just Do it” campaign, which doesn’t so much promote a certain shoe as much as “the message that anyone can be an athlete if they’re willing to work hard.”[ii] And indeed, this is exactly the message that appears on the first page of Nike’s current website: “Your daily motivation with the latest gear, most effective workouts and the inspiration you need to test your limits––and unleash your potential” with a fashion item lower on the page captioned “Dress like a champion.”[iii] In other words, the new empowerment advertising doesn’t really forgo conventional appeals to consumer anxiety. It simply personalizes the pitch with the lure of enhanced autonomy. The Nike ad itself sums up this contradiction perfectly in stating: “Life isn’t about finding your limits. It’s about realizing you have none.”[iv]

Just think about the potency of this message in an America where people feel controlled and managed at every turn. Where is the one place to exercise absolute creativity? What is the canvas that is yours alone? It’s the body, the face, the external image of the self. Nike pitches heavily to younger customers pressured by school or job seeking and still in the vulnerable stage of identity formation psychologists term “differentiation.” And of course, a lot of empowerment advertising has targeted women, ever since the technique was first introduced decades ago with the Virginia Slims “Have it your Way, Baby” campaign for cigarettes. One doesn’t have to look far to find other examples, such as the recent “Be Who You Are” ad campaign by Bobbi Brown cosmetics, offering “supremely flattering makeup for all skin tones … to make any woman feel like herself.”[v] Ads by Covergirl (“Because We Rule”) and Famous Footwear (“Victory is Yours”) work the same way.

The concept of creativity drives brands like “Creative Make-up” (Sephora), “Creative Cosmetics” (Thames & Cosmos), and the entire “BE Creative Make Up” line, the latter of which urges customers to “Be Beautiful, Be Yourself” because “You Are Wonderfully Unique.”[vi]  No less a publication than the New York Times Style Magazine recently ran a cover story along the same lines entitled “To Thine Own Self Be True” proclaiming its “praise of idiosyncratic beauty.” Summarizing all of this in Business Life Magazine, columnist David Mattin argued in a piece called “The New New Thing” that a novel truth has emerged in American marketing––“The endless search to become the people dream of being.” To Mattin the commodity of personal fulfillment––whether through appearance, personal fitness, happiness, or knowledge––has become the new holy grail in advertising. As he writes: “Whatever you sell, you’d better be selling personal fulfillment. Increasingly, brands that fail to understand that powerful truth will find themselves sailing into oblivion.”[vii]

This may sound appealing, but it also has troubling implications––the notion of creativity and “personal fulfillment” as a sponsored aspects of the human psyche. Here again, this isn’t so much a matter of anything “bad” being promoted or sold, but of “good” qualities transformed into products. It’s a form of seductive conditioning that draws consumers into purchasing with the lure of self-expression.  Despite its proponents’ claims, this process works by making people feel badly about themselves. Why would one need a beauty or fulfillment product if one already had these things? This is “traditional marketing” reaching into fresh territory, but still leaning on familiar social norms and ideals to convey inadequacy (unachieved fitness, skinniness, newness, for example), and along the way implying prejudice or outright distain toward anyone not fitting the image. And if you can’t afford the product, you are in double-trouble.

None of this should come in a surprise in a culture seemingly obsessed with the topic of identity. The rise of internet technology has made it possible to “create” an image of oneself in ways earlier generations could never imagine: online profiles, timelines, personal blogs, dating apps, game avatars, etc. More than ever, the “self” has become one’s most treasured possession––something to be cultivated, stylized, beautified, and presented for public view. And of course identity has to be protected as well––not only in the sense of a combative politics of identity, but also as an aspect of self that can be diminished, tarnished, or even erased. “Someone you’ve never met can post your picture on the internet,” wrote Daniel J. Solove in The Future of Reputation. “These transformations pose threats to people’s control over their reputations and their ability to be who they want to be.”[viii]  To Solove and many other privacy experts, the expansiveness and permanence of internet databases threaten to further compromise the boundaries between self and others. Now ordinary citizens must contend with the kind of public scrutiny once reserved for celebrities. But things can get strikingly personal too. When the New York Times recently asked “Do you snoop on your partner,” one in four respondents said “yes.”[ix] The solution Solove proposes is a “new and broader notion of privacy and by reaching a better balance between privacy and free speech.” And then there is the matter of “identity theft” in which the once-philosophical notions of the self-as-possession is literalized, often with criminal intent as when credit card fraud results.[x]

What lies behind this new preoccupation with the “self”? The seemingly narcissistic (and sometimes paranoid) obsession with personal identity, self-image, and reputation? Is this simply American individualism in yet another form, maybe amped up by media and ubiquitous social networking? Or is there something else behind the rising inward direction of American people? Might the neo-protectionism seen in Trump-era global policy reflect a deeper fearfulness of a nation and a people alone in a menacing world? Is it mere coincidence that empowerment marketing is rising as many feel politically disempowered, financially insecure, and alienated from their neighbors? Are self-expression and inner creativity becoming the final psychic refuge? And if the latter is the case, who gains and who loses from such a situation? And do prospects for change improve or lessen?

[i] Jean Marie Bauhaus “What Does Empowerment Mean in Marketing?” Business & Entrepreneurship (n.d.) http://yourbusiness.azcentral.com/empowerment-mean-marketing-28220.html (accessed Aug. 6, 2017).

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] “Start Your Journey,” Nike.com (Aug. 1, 2016) http://www.nike.com/us/en_us/c/justdoit (accessed Aug. 6, 2017).

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Bobbi Brown, “The Bobbie Brown Philosophy” Empowering women to look like their best selves,” aol. (Mar. 21, 2015) http://www.aol.com/article/2014/03/21/bobbi-brown-makeup-philosophy/20849490/ (accessed Jul. 17, 2016).

[vi] “Be Beautiful. Be Yourself.” BE Creative (n.d.) http://www.becreativemakeup.com (accessed Mar. 28, 2018).

[vii] David Mattin, “The New New Thing,” Business Life (Jun. 2016) (accessed Jul. 18, 2016).

[viii] Daniel J. Solove, The Future of Reputation: Gossip, Rumor, and Privacy on the Internet (New Haven: Yale, 2007) p. 3.

[ix] “Do You Snoop on Your Partner?” New York Times Magazine (Aug. 7, 2016) (accessed Aug. 7, 2017)

[x] The Future of Reputation, p. 4.

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