Equality for sale?

Madeleine Pownall, a third year undergraduate at the University of Lincoln, ponders the capitalisation of social change.

Equality is at the forefront of our agenda. Movements such as #TimesUp and #MeToo are tackling gender, universities are clamping down on racism, and as a society, there is a growing intolerance to inequality. Due to this, equality is now the latest buzzword and attempts to promote diversity and representation are the newest trends. Inevitably, these concepts have been picked up by marketeers and now a narrative of diversity and inclusivity is used to push products. I wonder how concerned psychologists should be about this blatant capitalisation of social change, and whether we should be viewing marketing ploys more critically?

A photograph of a young girl at the premier of the 2016 all-female Ghostbusters reboot went viral on Twitter. Dressed in Ghostbusters fancy-dress, the girl is pictured gazing up at lead actress, Kristen Wiig, in admiration, wide-eyed and beaming. On social media, many commentators claimed that this image embodies the importance of representation. More recently, Marvel’s Black Panther has left a significant, cultural footprint in film in its celebration of black culture and power. However, whilst recent years have seen a spike in good-intentioned, thoughtful representations of minorities, there has also been a paralleled rise in cheap, reactive attempts at using ‘equality’ as a superficial marketing ploy.

McCain’s 2017 'We are Family' TV advert shows gay dads, single mums, and adoptive parents all coming together as a family over a bag of frozen chips. It lays on the ‘equality and diversity’ message thick, and I do admire their efforts. However, it must not be forgotten that ultimately this is marketing; the end goal is to sell us stuff. Is there a fundamental difference between representation in media, and genuine, meaningful efforts at improving social conditions? Whilst the two may go hand-in-hand, I worry that inclusion of minority groups in mainstream media and advertising has become a quick-fix for marketeers. An easy nod towards equality that ticks the box of representation to sell more products. I now question: how do we, as psychologists, separate the efforts which make a meaningful contribution towards equality, and those which merely capitalise on the movement? Are representations which offer merely a depiction of equality without backing or investment into wider social change all just a bit of a cop-out?

Attempts at capitalising on movements towards equality also permeate through retail, particularly in the context of gender. MissGuided, one of the largest retailers for female clothing, has focussed its efforts on a message of gender equality. 'We’re on a mission to empower you!' their marketing email tells me on International Women’s Day. It seems that gender equality is MissGuided’s newest trend – and it sells (profits have reportedly reached up to £55 million). T-shirts with 'Fierce' and ‘Girls Do It Better’ sprawled across the front are now top sellers. BooHoo, another cheap-and-cheerful brand, has followed suit, selling t-shirts for a fiver with ‘Feminist’ emblazoned across the chest. However, the authenticity of this marketing ploy must be questioned. Zaslow (2009) summarises the problem, stressing that promotion of girl-power based marketing “does not require an investment in social change”. As Driscoll (1999) also queried, 'can merchandised relations to girls be authentic?'. I remain sceptical.

From a psychological point of view, both these products and the media representations may enhance our self-identity. Social learning theory stresses that what we see on the television has a profound impact on how we view ourselves (Bandura, 2002). It is also well-documented that we use clothing to communicate our social identity to others (Entwistle, 2015). Therefore, efforts which place marginalised voices at the forefront of public awareness (be it through advertising or retail) contribute to the construction of our psychology. However, in relation to companies’ commitment to improving inequality, in every sense of the term, how much action is enough? How much contribution should psychologists settle for?

I would like to end by noting that as I write this, I am wearing a t-shirt that reads ‘the female revolution’. It’s from MissGuided and it cost a tenner. The buying and selling of products branded with equality alone does not improve social conditions. It is only effective if used strictly as an accessory to wider engagement and investment. Equality? Been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

- Madeleine Pownall is a final year undergraduate at the University of Lincoln, and she blogs at http://thoughtbubblesblog.co.uk. You can find more from her in our archive.


Bandura, A. (2002). Social cognitive theory in cultural context. Applied psychology51(2), 269-290.

Driscoll, C. (1999). Girl culture, revenge and global capitalism: Cybergirls, riot grrls, spice girls. Australian Feminist Studies14(29), 173-193.

Durham, M. G. (2003). The girling of America: Critical reflections on gender and popular communication. Popular Communication1(1), 23-31.

Entwistle, J. (2015). The fashioned body: Fashion, dress and social theory. John Wiley & Sons.

Zaslow, E. (2009). Feminism, Inc.: Coming of age in girl power media culture. Springer.

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