Positive and Negative Feminism in Campaign Ads

Recently, I have been thinking about the context in which feminist activism presents itself and the rhetoric used to frame the issues.  I have identified two camps, which I would call positive and negative feminism, that sometimes oppose each other and sometimes overlap. To be clear, I don’t mean to hierarchize the two via this labelling, but I am curious which approach would be better suited to aiding certain causes.

What do I mean by positive and negative feminism? Positive feminism to me is the kind of feminism that emphasizes the positive outcomes and benefits of gender equality, the achievements of feminism, and the particular qualities and contributions of women within society.

Negative feminism, then, would be focussing on the problematic issues of an unjust society, would draw particular attention to the discrimination and suffering faced by women and minorities, and would be more accusatory rather than celebratory.

As you can see, these two camps are in no way prescriptive or exclusionary. I hardly know any feminist who would only subscribe to one or the other. However, to me this distinction becomes important when thinking about how to frame a particular issue or campaign for the public.

One example would be the conception of a campaign in favor of equal marriage. A positive approach could focus on the portrayal of happy couples, regardless of sexuality, and on love and family. A negative campaign could feature anger over the continuing deprivation of certain freedoms and benefits, should the law not be passed.

Lush same sex marriage poster    Screen Shot 2012 07 09 at 12.20.41 PM 234x329

positive campaign for marriage equality

negative campaign: “speaking of gay marriage… shut up! we want your rights, not your opinion!”

The latter campaign is quite an exception, as a topic such as equal marriage and its proximity to questions of commitment and family tends to lend itself to a more positive approach. Quite the contrary is true for campaigns against domestic violence and rape. Feminists have been accused of “victimizing” women with their rhetoric, but it’s hard to do otherwise when you’re dealing with issues that kill and harm women and LGBTQ every day (link in German only).

The recent campaign for One Billion Rising attempted an interesting overlap of both positive and negative elements. (Trigger Warning for implicit and explicit depiction of domestic violence, rape, FGM etc.)

In this video, the premise is a negative one: Women are subjected to violence and exploitation all over the world, and this fact is illustrated by rather explicit imagery. However, the negative departure is then followed by images of women “rising up” and dancing as a response. It is not my desire to criticize the video or the movement here, just to illustrate the pros and cons of positive and negative feminist campaigns.

Negative campaigns are often used to trigger strong emotions of outrage, anger and the urge to change something. However, they have, I believe, become a bit over-used and the many calls for action and donations often inspire more helplessness and complacency rather than any concrete response. A campaign’s emphasis on victims of violence etc. can come at the expense of these same “victims'” empowerment, as they are being silenced and Othered (especially in campaigns addressing Third World issues to a primarily Western audience).

Positive campaigns can be useful to inspire confidence in people that are generally opposed to change (such as in the campaign in favor of equal marriage) and it can make those affected by discrimination feel empowered rather than victimized. On the downside, positive framing can seem a little disingenuous or even trivial in the face of people’s actual experiences of violence and other human rights abuses. Moreover, the celebration of certain “feminine” qualities can also easily lead to essentializing of gender traits and the exclusion of others.

But let’s get away from issues that – due to their nature – seem more obvious as to which campaign approach would be favored. I would like to use the example of gender equality in the workplace. The following video is by a recent French campaign, but I believe the images are pretty self-explanatory:

I think this video is really funny, and I would venture and say that most women have felt like those in the video many times in their lives, both in private and professionally. However, its premise is entirely negative; it shows women as weak, passive and with little assertiveness, thus certainly not inspiring the confidence of employers or lawmakers, or serving a particularly feminist cause, for that matter.

A positive campaign could have emphasized women’s leadership qualities as equal to men’s, or businesses and economies that are flourishing due to more female employees. These sort of campaigns may speak to the concerns of enterprises and quota opponents, but they still don’t speak for me or my feminism. After all, I don’t think women should have to prove that they are better for business and have the same or better qualities as men, in order to be treated equally.

That’s why I really like this Turkish campaign (which promotes equal representation in parliament). It may not look like much, but I like the message that gets across: firstly, that equal representation is a right and not a privilege, and secondly, that women shouldn’t have to be just like men to achieve the same things. Women deserve an equal share of power, regardless of the pros and cons.


Communication is key in political activism and lobbying. Getting the message across can define the success or failure of a political campaign. I think, feminist campaigns are facing a particular dilemma, because often the message adressed to an audience to achieve a certain purpose may not be in line with all of feminists’ beliefs. Therefore, any feminist campaign would benefit from looking at both positive and negative angles, and combinations thereof, to avoid harmful clichés and dubious subtexts.

Do you know any great or horrible feminist campaigns? Feel free to share in the comments.


6 responses to “Positive and Negative Feminism in Campaign Ads

  1. Hi. I don’t have time to digest/respond to this posting but I do think that you have hit upon something important (and original). Will definitely give it more thought when I get home. Currently in Egypt doing all sorts of things. Best wishes.

  2. This is really interesting, thank you! I think that there are definitely kinds of campaigns that are a lot easier to present positively than others- in my own experience marriage equality would be very easy to be positive about (weddings! Happy couples! Love!) but reproductive rights and abortion rights, say, are a lot more difficult. Especially here in Ireland, where the only thing that seems to have gotten people talking about abortion rights has been pregnant women’s deaths, and we’re dealing with the legacy of decades of silence & oppression. I’d- being entirely genuine here- love to see if there are positive advertising campaigns on the topic.

    • I guess abortion would be a difficult thing to make a positive ad about. That said, I don’t think it’s impossible. For example, one could show happy women going about their daily business and then add that they had abortions, so as to counter the stigma surrounding it… That just off the top of my head…

  3. Horrible campaigns… well, I’m side-eyeing that Australian marriage campaign now, given that it made a pro-same-sex-marriage poster with no POC in it.

  4. Thanks for this posting. It’s made me think (again) about three things in relation to feminism: image, the nature of campaigns and the notion of strategic thinking. And I have to say that it wasn’t easy. The more I thought about it, the more complex and unwieldy it became.

    My reading of this posting is that you have quite rightly recognised that the outcome of a campaign should be to influence a person/persons to (a) sympathise with a cause and/or (b) take some action which will further ‘the cause’. If we look at feminist successes over the last fifty years or so, a lot of the progress on big issues has ultimately resulted from political action, so I guess we have to say that politicians are a crucial audience for feminist campaigns, along with pressure groups and voters who lend support to the issues.

    Alongside this, you raise the question of the appropriateness of tone in relation to particular issues – and does it make a difference? My immediate thought was that the important issue for feminists is not the tone of what you call a campaign, but the image of feminism (to which the tone of campaigns and feminist commentary necessarily contribute).

    What is the image of feminism amongst the population at large (pick your geographical area) do you think? Is it positive, negative, neutral, evenly balanced or skewed? My hypothesis is that at best it’s neutral and at worst negative, even though people who hold negative perceptions might actually be sympathetic to some of the issues. And that’s not helpful if you are trying to persuade people and get things done. And if I’m right, it’s not an image which is going to change in the near future largely because of the nature of feminism (too many people doing their own thing and unable to agree amongst themselves).

    I suppose that the next question is do feminist activists care about their image and public perceptions? I suspect not (remember perception is as important as reality in these matters). I suspect that the most active activists would take the line that those who are not with us are against us and to hell with them. Of course, that would be like a political party which seeks election being dismissive of floating voters (unhelpful in the long run). Like it or not, image is important.

    I accept that the feminists associated with the two videos and the blog that you highlighted are campaigning but the actual videos and blog come across as isolated events/awareness raisers (not campaigns). A campaign is a coordinated and sustained series of events or activities designed to influence people’s behaviour (politics and advertising) or simply beat them (in battle). Your examples don’t match up to this. And I would say it’s true of the vast majority of feminist output. And because they are not actually campaigns, their potential to effect change is limited.

    Today I read of a move to legislate (in the UK) to the effect that cigarettes will be sold in plain packaging, removing the attraction to young, non-smokers who are seduced by branding and image. The campaign to eradicate smoking (in the UK) has been going on for decades. During that time, there has been a sustained message that smoking is bad for you. I forget when, but in the recent past smoking was banned in public/work places. Subsequently, packaging had to carry bigger and dire health warnings. Very recently it was made illegal to display cigarette packets in shops. Now we are talking about plain packaging on something that you can’t see (until someone has bought it). And, of course, taxation has been used not only as a revenue raiser but as a long-term deterrent. This all smacks of a campaign (to progressively erode the problem) and strategic thinking. And strategic thinking is something that’s missing in feminism (along with campaigns).
    Your campaign examples are at the level of a sustained message that smoking is bad for you – necessary but only a backdrop to action.
    Both strategic thinking and genuine campaigns are made more difficult in feminism because there is no unity, no identity, no leadership and no infrastructure (no corporate/political base – literally). Or if it’s there, it’s not evident to the man and woman in the street. Feminists may be grouped in loose organisations and cadres (which may or may not stand the test of time) but it doesn’t add up to much in the popular imagination. (Because of what I have just written, I Googled Feminist Organisations in the UK and found a list of active groups (over time) in London, and it reads like a rag-bag of never heard of before or since clubs – yes there are some high profile exceptions to the rule). Many feminist activists who have a voice are actually loners: journalists, authors and bloggers (and, admittedly, some politicians). And what they specialise in is recycling angst, producing awareness raisers and holding meetings for the faithful, not organising campaigns which actually move things forward (or if they do, it doesn’t filter down to the rest of us). They also create what we might regard as feminist noise, which makes deciding what to support and whether or not to support it very difficult.

    I watched the two videos and read some of the blog and asked myself a couple of questions: are these ‘campaigns’ persuasive and who is the audience? Maybe I should have asked the questions the other way round because I couldn’t help concluding that they were all intended for the converted. Worse, they all had aspects designed to make the floating voter switch off.

    Other questions arose as I watched and read: did the authors determine a preferred outcome against which the effectiveness of the campaigns could be measured, and were these campaigns consumer tested before release? Or was it a case of say what we want to say and hope for the best?

    Today I read of another campaign. It appears that a lot of women like their Baileys cold and would like to keep it in the fridge. Unfortunately, when it comes to Baileys the fridge is a very unfriendly environment – the bottle doesn’t fit. So the manufacturers have decided to (a) change the shape of what is a very distinctive bottle and (b) spend about a million pounds on an advertising campaign.

    What do you think they should do? Should it be:
    (a) Saturation TV advertising, newspaper advertising, magazine advertising, in-store displays, launch discounts and special offer tokens to be redeemed at your local supermarket – launch the campaign in the two months running up to Christmas (a campaign which has to be resourced, coordinated and time-scaled)
    (b) A five minute video which they put up on YouTube

    The violence against women video highlights (raises awareness) on a variety of related but district issues. However,bundling issues together like this may not be a smart move. It may be what feminists want to say but it creates an unmanageable expectation – the problem is so big we don’t know where to start. As I recall, the issues include: sweatshop labour under a gangmaster, marital rape, domestic violence and gratuitous, casual violence in the street (I forget the others). If you wanted a campaign to eradicate/minimise one of these, which would you prioritise and what would the campaign look like (using the models above)? And given that they represent world-wide phenomenon, how would you factor that in? How would you turn concern into action, or at least indicate a way forward? The one thing that you aren’t allowed to do, however, is make another awareness raising video.

    Over to you.