Don’t Sweat It, Be Bold: Neoliberal Discourses in Progressive Advertising Campaigns
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Media that aim to empower marginalised communities are gaining popularity in popular culture, especially in advertising. Leftist scholars have noted that these texts often combine discourses from feminist and queer activism with neoliberal values, manifested in discourses that are called neoliberal feminism, popular feminism and homonormativity. Using these three discourses as analytical concepts, I investigate two progressive advertising campaigns that are part of a larger trend of empowering media: ALL STRENGTH, NO SWEAT by deodorant brand Secret and Levi’s PRIDE: 2018. I examine how the two campaigns make use of progressive values used in feminist and queer activist discourses and compare them. To do this, I perform a Foucauldian discourse analysis. Because discourse is a way of representing a certain version of reality, I pay special attention to other interpretations of reality that were hidden in the campaigns. The analysis is structured around three key themes: the construction of social inequality, the subjects who are (not) represented and the presence of the brands and their products in the advertisements. I argue that the two campaigns are remarkably similar in their representation of queer and feminist issues and subjects because they both incorporate neoliberal discourses. In the Levi’s campaign, this manifests as a homonormative discourse, while Secret mirrors popular and neoliberal feminist discourses. Both campaigns make visible subjects who, despite obstacles, have succeeded in their respective work fields. Social inequality is thus represented as a personal problem that an individual is capable of overcoming if they have internalised neoliberal values of responsibility, consumerism and entrepreneurialism. In other words, the campaigns perpetuate the idea that individual responsibility is a sufficient solution to structural issues of queerphobia and sexism. This way, the advertisements dismiss the structural and intersectional nature of many issues, placing the onus of empowerment on individuals. Moreover, they encourage the viewer to become responsible neoliberal workers and citizens, presenting queer people and/or women with a new set of norms rather than liberating them from social constraints. All in all, the brands offer the viewer a simplified and palatable portrayal of inequality that is insufficient to critique structural socio-economic issues. The seemingly progressive narrative of the campaigns is very useful for the brands, however. By making these advertisements, they associate their products with the empowerment of marginalised communities. In summary, the thesis aims to show that the campaigns ultimately do not liberate marginalised communities but further neoliberal agendas and serve the progressive reputations of the brands.