Marriage Market Takeover: SK-II’s brand of ’empowertising’

Japanese beauty brand SK-II’s video, “Marriage Market Takeover”, was released in April this year and went viral. The video follows a number of single Chinese women who have reached or surpassed the age at which they are expected to get married, and must bear the brunt of social stigma about unmarried women.

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image from: youtube

The video sheds light on a major social issue; that of the Sheng Nu or ‘leftover woman’. Interviews with these women and their parents highlight the criticism and pressure faced by unmarried young women across China. SK-II created an exhibition of these women’s profiles near the regular Marriage Market in Shanghai’s People’s Square, clearly stating that marital status does not define them. Later we see their parents’ reactions to this display, in a deliberately public attempt by SK-II to bridge the generational gap:

Find out what these women courageously say to reconstruct the mutual respect between generations and increase society’s understanding to finally change their destiny in the film.

At a time when feminism is growing in China and yet the movement remains largely underground, the need for women’s empowerment is routinely ignored in China. As stated by one of these women: ‘not getting married is like the biggest sign of disrespect’ to her parents, and society as a whole. The film taps into that need directly. It now has over 2 million views on Youtube and almost 3 million on Youku (the Chinese alternative to Youtube, which is not accessible in China) and became a major talking point on social media across the country in the Spring.

Reading this in China? Watch SK-II’s Marriage Market Takeover on youku.

The short film really seems to be pushing for personal change for the featured women, and social change for China in general. What isn’t fully clear from this short, emotive, and quite informative, film is that it is, in reality, an advertisement. In some ways this seems subtle: the company aren’t selling a product, just enhancing the brand. However, this is a major contemporary marketing technique: sell the story and the ideology, then the product will sell itself. You just have to find their mission statement to see how this double-sell works:

We at SK-II believe that your destiny isn’t set at birth – it’s defined by the decisions you make, the chances you take, and whether or not you follow your dreams.

We also believe that everyone can have beautiful, crystal clear skin, and that feeling beautiful gives you the confidence to challenge the “little dictators” that hold you back.

The prestige beauty brand are using the tagline ‘change your destiny’ to sell beauty products. SK-II are using women’s empowerment as a marketing tool. They took advantage of a group of women trapped by their social situation in order to increase the visibility of their brand, which was an incredibly successful marketing ploy. As feminist author Andi Zeisler states: ‘modern feminism was co-opted by the market almost as soon as it was born.’

Almost since the suffrage movement began, years before the invention and advertisement of a ‘ladies cigarettes’ in the USA, companies have been using the language of empowerment to sell products. There is a ‘history of drawing on feminist language and theory to sell products […] driven by the idea that female consumers are empowered by their personal consumer choices’ (Ziesler).

More recent – and perhaps more obvious – examples of feminist ideals being used to advertise products include the Always “Like a Girl” campaign, which was dubbed a ‘social experiment’ all in the name of empowering women through feminine hygiene products.

Another is FCKH8’s controversial video entitled ‘Potty-Mouthed Princesses Drop F-Bombs for Feminism’, which was designed to offend a huge demographic and sell everyone else a T-shirt, while possibly exploiting child actors.

The language of empowerment is ever more prevalent in advertisements aimed at women. But it is not the chosen product, but the choice itself that matters in this particular brand of “empowertising” as Ziesler calls it. Looking over the history of advertising for women’s products, the company will normally target their female audience in one of two ways:

  1. make women feel bad about themselves, then offer a product that will solve the problem created by the advertisement, and explain exactly how it will improve life;
  2. make women believe that buying or using the product will make a difference to the lives of others, or to the women’s empowerment movement in general.

It seems to me that SK-II’s brand of ’empowertising’ does both of these things at once. However in an age of ‘marketplace feminism’, where a lot of brands are doing this, perhaps the Japanese brand is doing something subtly different, offering a little more. They are a company, not a non-profit. Their aim is to make money, not put the world to rights. So, while they are using empowerment as an advertising tool, as a friend put it: “at least they’re advocating these ideas.” In other words, at least their advertisements empower women, rather than diminish women.

What is truly striking about this short film is that these are real women (and their real parents) sharing the truth about their real lives. While other brands are using actors and shooting in studios, this genuinely occurs in the outside world and – we are led to believe – actually has an affect on the women featured in the film. If all beauty advertisements created positive social change in even a handful of women’s lives, the industry would be a different place.

Read on:

Empowertise me! an excerpt from Andi Zeisler’s book We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl©, the Buying and Selling of a Political Movement

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