This Girl Can. It’s a phrase that empowers and pushes. It’s also a UK-based campaign that’s gaining momentum and praise internationally. I recently caught wind of this new go-get-‘em campaign and figured I’d stop to see what all the hoopla was about. So I watched.
The 90-second spot features women of all shapes, sizes, colors and ages being physically active. Running, swimming, playing and, most importantly, sweating. This is all perfectly paired with Missy Elliot’s dance-inducing classic, “Get ur freak on.”
I loved it. Putting aside my horrible lip syncing of the lyrics, I ended the video feeling great! “This girl can!” I felt like I was my own cheerleader prepping myself to conquer the world. Well done, “This Girl Can” campaign, well done. The marketing minds behind the campaign at London agency FCB Inferno had done what they intended: encourage women to be more active and not feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about themselves while doing so.
This insight came from a series of studies that the client, Sport England, uncovered and became determined to address. The English sports council found that 75 percent of women in the UK want to be more active but avoid exercise for fear of what others might think.
I wanted to know more. I wanted to see how others were perceiving this campaign. Positively? Negatively? Would this be considered good female marketing or a ploy? I immediately came upon the article “This Girl Can campaign is all about sex, not sport.” Intrigued, I clicked.
As almost all articles do, this led me down an Internet rabbit hole of links, comments and loud perspectives. Was that article right? Is the campaign just playing into the social norms of what is considered beautiful or sexy? Is “This Girl Can” a giant subliminal message saying, “It’s okay to be overweight as long as you are working toward being the size of a model”?
Now I was in my head. This campaign that initially made me feel good was now making me feel uncomfortable about women’s ongoing portrayal in the media. I needed another opinion. Enter Rachel Skybetter, my colleague, copywriting partner and a brilliant female marketer.
After watching the video and reading the article, she replied, “I agree.” The next 20 minutes were consumed with an intense back-and-forth dialogue on what “This Girl Can” says versus what it’s doing. We agreed and disagreed—and I soon found myself jumping ship from the positive outlook I had started with. Excited by our different perspectives and interested to dig deeper, I asked Rachel if she’d share her point of view, here is what she said:
“First impressions? Yeah, I get it. I totally pick up on the empowering women vibe, the “I’m at the gym and this song is my JAM!”, can-do-anything vibe. It makes me want to slap on my knock-off Lululemon spandex and pound the pavement. I’m pretty sure this is the vibe Sport England wants its viewers to absorb.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. Campaigns like this, though outwardly empowering, only address a symptom of a much larger problem. By showing a woman’s cellulite and telling me to be proud of my jiggle, they are backhandedly reminding me that jiggle is actually not OK. By showing oft-sexualized angles of women’s bodies to the soundtrack of Missy Elliott’s “Get ur Freak On,” they are not dispelling the objectification of women—they’re reinforcing it. By calling these women of all shapes, ages and colors “girls,” they diminish women and only further slant the playing field of equality.
Do I think Sport England meant for this reaction? No. I don’t think there is a malicious intention anywhere. This campaign is a reaction to a socialized problem, one that has been reinforced over decades of advertising from the male gaze. Here’s what I would like to see: I would like to see regular, everyday commercials—Budweiser, McDonald’s, Nike, etc.—showcase women of all shapes and sizes. They would be hangin’ out, eating burgers in their regular-sized jeans and with average-sized pores. This shouldn’t be the exception; it should be the norm. I hope that someday, seeing women that look like us every day, on all advertising will eliminate the need for a special campaign to make women feel better about themselves. End rant.”
With Rachel’s words in mind, I kept exploring the subject. Were we simply overanalyzing this campaign and taking it way out of context? Or are other people glazing over the bigger issue of unrealistic female portrayals in the media? I reached out to friends and family to see what they thought. Does this campaign do what it intended? As a woman, do you feel more confident going to the gym because of this message?
A sample of reactions from both men and women:
What do you think the message or purpose of this campaign is?
“I think the purpose is to get women up and active and screw being judged.” –Female
“You don’t have to be skinny to work out? Or not everyone who works out is skinny?” –Male
“No idea, it’s unclear. Something to do with fitness, but that’s about all I got.” –Male
How do you think females are supposed to feel after seeing this campaign?
“Motivated, encouraged, strong, healthy—as long as you are making an effort—whether that effort is working out, playing sports or just running on your own.” –Male
“I think the take away from this campaign is to leave women feeling empowered. My qualms are that women might see this and think that the only place they can feel comfortable or confident exercising or being physical is among other women. I do not like separating physical activity or sports by gender. This creates potential problems where men are shamed from typically “female-dominant” activities such as yoga, spinning and now women are shamed from “male-dominant” activities such as boxing or football. This classifies physical activity into a sexist tier that, unfortunately, already sort of exists.“ –Female
Would the women featured in this campaign be effective starring in another brand’s campaign? If yes, what brand(s)? If no, why not?
“Yes. I think it is important to show women of all shapes, sizes, ethnicities. I thought this spot did well in that. Could be used for sports gear, drink, health clubs, etc. (i.e. Nike, Adidas, Gatorade).“ –Male
“Maybe Weight Watchers or other diet-focused brands.” –Female
“They are everyday women, so probably not high fashion but for most other brands, it would probably be a good fit.” –Male
“Yes, I could see them in a Dove campaign or other campaigns furthering equality.” –Female
“Maybe for gyms to show they aren’t intimidating. Hard to see them in an ad spot for Lululemon though.” –Male
“We take women who are “real” (aka, they look like someone we know or people that we could know and relate to—they’re not perfect, airbrushed, flawless models) and every time we put these “real” women in commercials, it’s to promote being “real” and “natural beauty” and “being yourself.” That’s great, I love that…but I also want to see these kind of women in commercials where it’s NOT about self love and accepting who they are, [but instead] where they’re just normal people, on TV, selling a product or a brand.” –Female
Do you think this campaign achieves its objective of encouraging females to be more physically active?
“Yes. It shows that even if you do not fit the mold of a stereotypical athlete, you can better yourself and your body, be active, have fun etc. I think it is very effective for a women’s fit/fun/health campaign.” –Male
“No. I don’t think that it captures encouraging females to be active. I think you are so consumed with what you are watching that you miss the message.” –Female
“Yes, I liked the different sizes of women, the different ages, sports, smiles for feeling an achievement in themselves. I prefer seeing normal women looking like me. I dislike campaigns, for example the unrealistic women on the Victoria’s Secret campaigns (I think those campaigns are for men, rather than real women). Campaigns like that are a false view of what real women look like.” –Female
“I think they do a pretty good job, but I think the focus is more on empowerment than actually getting females to exercise.” –Male
What I gathered from the opinions of my friends, family and coworkers was that this campaign is more good than bad—from a topical viewpoint. (Which I agree with.) However, there are a lot more issues with it once you look past the upbeat music and clever copy. After talking with multiple people and hearing their responses, the most saddening part has to do with where else “real” women fit in advertising. Almost every person said something related to fitness or health. No one said cosmetics, food or spirits. Why? Probably because we’ve been conditioned to only buy lipstick from beautiful women, dinner from thin women and beer from sexy women. Grrrrrreat. That’s super obtainable and realistic.
So tell me, does this campaign deserve extra praise for showing “real” women or should other campaigns be scorned for not? I’m not sure of the answer and I appreciate the effort of “This Girl Can,” but I know there is a much bigger problem at hand.
Your move, Super Bowl commercials. Your move.