The answer may not surprise you
I am between TV shows. From time to time this happens, I’ll finish watching something nutritious and end up floating around for a week or two, unlatched to any new programming in particular, trying one-off episodes of shows I’ve heard about and not enjoying any of them. It’s usually when I get my money’s worth out of having Hulu and Amazon accounts on top of my Netflix situation.
It’s also how I started watching My Mad Fat Diary last night—a show about a British teen reentering high school after spending time in a psych ward in 1996. People who are interested in this program are probably interested in mental health, coming of age tales, body politics, and ~the feminine experience~, so it makes sense that Secret deodorant bought ad time against it. (Disclosure: I have previously worked with Secret on a piece about comedy for Elle Magazine.) But the ad they’ve been choosing to play for me each and every commercial break is… poorly conceived.
In it, a nervous millennial with great hair practices asking for a raise in the bathroom mirror. The pivot comes when her coworker exits a nearby stall to wash her hands and, instead of laughing at the millennial for talking to herself, encourages her to go get what she deserves. Secret: The ally’s deodorant. Secret: we’re all sisters here in the shitter. Secret: at least you won’t have B.O. while you grapple with the realities of your oppression.
To be fair, it worked on me the first time I watched it. “Hm!” I thought. “That was refreshingly unglam!” But the more and more I’ve seen it, the more and more I’ve realized how sinister it feels to watch a company parrot the kind of language that puts you at ease in order to sell you something completely unrelated. Let’s unpack the chain of events here:
- Procter & Gamble has this product, Secret deodorant, that they’re trying to sell to the modern woman.
- Historically, feminine hygiene products have been able to get away with a basic thesis of, “The way you are is repulsive. Don’t worry, though. You can buy this and we’ll make it better.” The modern woman is a little woker than this. In 2016 if you’re a beauty brand and you misstep messaging-wise, it doesn’t disappear overnight. There are places like Twitter and Amazon where consumers can voice their displeasure with your services ad nauseam, and if an influential enough person weighs in to say you’re unwoke, that might be the end of your company. Damn. Better learn how to talk to women.
- Realizing that we don’t want to be guilted into buying products out of fear that no one will fuck us, they have decided to appeal to a new fear: that we are not persevering elegantly enough. You have a job, you have relationships, you have responsibilities, but still you want people to think you look nice. Not for a man, though. You’re not your mother! Just so you can feel put-together while you ‘yas queen slay hunty’ your way to the top. This deodorant isn’t a tool of an oppressive capitalist structure reliant on your buying a new armpit lotion every few weeks, it’s a tool to help you get. that. money! Secret.
- This is what is bleakest to me: they want the emotional credit for being woke while still operating under that broad-level manipulation of implying that you need their product to succeed at all. The reason the millennial in the ad is scared about asking for a raise isn’t because, “Ack! Work is stressful!” It’s because she entered the workplace at a time when her effort is considered less valuable than a man’s, and she has to rev herself up in order to even broach the topic of that inequality with her employers, who may very well say “No!” or “You’re crazy!” or “That’s not your worth!” This isn’t a woman’s natural stress level.
- This is a company saying, “We see you. Everything is hard. Has that established enough goodwill for you to buy our product?” But if you’ve got the eyes to see that there’s a problem, and you’ve got the mouth the make an ad, why not make one that actually has some skin in the game? The tone shouldn’t be, “You’re a badass for dealing with inequality, here’s our product.” It should be, “Separate from deodorant, this is something nobody should ever have to deal with. Here is our one small way that we can help make your life more seamless.” I’d like to believe that’s what some writers set out to do initially, and that the original message got edited and focus grouped away until the commercial became the version I’ve seen so many times.
I guess I’d just never want anyone to think that the reason they didn’t get paid a fair wage is because their pits smelled Powder Fresh instead of So Very Summerberry. You deserve to be paid for your work regardless of your signature scent. You are deserving of equality no matter what brand you align with armpits-wise.
It’s easy to take the years of body-positive advertising Dove has done for granted now that so many companies are mimicking them, but the reason you still hear people bring their specific campaigns up is because we’re still in a place where any brand telling women they’re capable is an unfortunately radical act. And having an example of what it looks like to be spoken to correctly makes soft allies like Secret seem sinister in comparison. These companies have access to all the same data—when one of them misspeaks or doesn’t play to the top of their intelligence, it’s because they thought they could get away with it, and that’s very gross to watch happen over and over again in the name of my own empowerment.
Anyway, I’m still watching the show*, so this ad and I have a couple more weeks together. If Hulu or Secret would like to Venmo me $420.69 in emotional damages, my handle is @christinefriar.
*It’s cute! Like Freaks and Geeks but from a foreign land!