Secret Deodorant Tried (And Failed) To Explain The Wage Gap

This piece was originally published on ThinkProgress.

Remember “Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman?” Well, Procter & Gamble is at it again with their latest commercial for Secret deodorant, which plays on the national conversation surrounding pay equity for women. In the process, it makes incorrect and potentially hurtful assumptions about why the wage gap exists and how to close it.

The commercial opens with a blonde millennial woman nervously practicing different ways to ask her boss for a raise. She tries asking for “a favor,” describes a project she’s worked on, and indicates that a male colleague gets paid more, all while she shrugs and fidgets in frustration. After 30 seconds of second-guessing her reflection in the bathroom mirror, an older woman walks out of a stall to tell our protagonist, simply, “Do it.” The spot ends with onscreen text: “Stress Test #4528: At 3 o’clock Lucy does her part to close the wage gap,” and a final image of deodorant with the voiceover that says “Secret: Stress tested for women.”

Multiple friends sent me the spot, curious to get my perspective on it. Through helping women negotiate and navigate their careers, I’ve counseled hundreds of women in situations similar to Lucy’s — negotiating contracts, starting businesses, and, of course, asking for raises. Working every day with women affected by the wage gap, I’m thrilled it’s finally become a mainstream conversation. I wanted to like this ad, but I don’t.

In my most generous interpretation of the commercial, it honors the hard work of building our confidence and navigating workplace dynamics. The darker (but likely more accurate) reading is that it trivializes women’s experiences, reinforces negative stereotypes about women in the workplace, subtly blames women for inequality, and takes advantage of a cultural climate increasingly concerned about women’s issues.

As one friend put it, “This felt like a bunch of guys in suits in a board room trying to figure out how to use feminism to market to women.” The wage gap — so hot right now!

Instead of figuring out how to use diversity and inclusion to sell toiletries, I wish Secret had followed Dove’s lead in redefining its role in the U.S. market, making commercials that are more empowering to women and culturally sensitive by expanding the definition of beauty, albeit in a limited way. (It’s worth noting, however, that Dove’s empowerment efforts are U.S. specific: Unilever, Dove’s parent company, is a major purveyor of skin lightening cream in India.)

Hypocrisy aside, an empowering approach works. Not only are women less likely to skip ads that empower, they are 80 percent more likely to engage with them on social media. Procter & Gamble tries to tap into that market, but for my money, they miss the mark. Want some real advice? Here are three suggestions for women who see this ad:

Don’t “do it” before you’re ready.

Telling Lucy to “do it” implies that she’s ready to have this conversation. To be clear: Lucy is in the midst of a simultaneously charming and cringe-inducing bout of multiple personalities. Her self-talk — which abruptly transitions from adolescent whining to an acknowledgement of her contributions to the business — may feel like secondhand embarrassments to viewers, but it’s part of the normal phases of exploration as women strive to find their authentic negotiating voice. Instead of celebrating that process of self-reflection, the ad basically tells Lucy she should dive in with no coherent plan and word vomit all over the boss’ desk while complimenting his tie.

Please no. Don’t jump in unprepared.

Do practice what to say and figure out what feels comfortable and authentic — and coherent. It’s one of the best strategies for effective negotiations.

Remember, the wage gap isn’t your fault.

By saying “Lucy does her part to close the wage gap,” Procter & Gamble essentially blames the wage gap on women’s insecurity. It might as well say, “Ladies, you just need to be more confident! If you’re confident and ask for what you deserve, of course your boss will immediately increase your salary by 21 percent (or 46 percent if you’re Latina) once they learn of this inequity.”

There are many reasons the wage gap exists, but the fact that women don’t ask isn’t top among them.

There are many reasons the wage gap exists, but the fact that women don’t ask isn’t top among them. One factor is that jobs dominated by women pay less than those that employ a male majority. Another is the way a lack of paid leave prompts many women to leave the labor market entirely when they have young children.

Various forms of bias also play key roles, everything from prescriptive bias about how “feminine” women should behave (i.e. never experiencing a modicum of anger) to mommy bias, a trite term for the way mothers are perceived to be less competent and committed.

One of the main reasons women don’t negotiate is a very reasonable fear of negative consequences. It violates traditional gender norms for women to advocate for themselves. This insidious unconscious bias means that even if a woman’s confidence is rockin’, she may very well face sanctions that a man advocating for himself would not.

Sure, women negotiating and advocating for themselves have the potential to impact pay equity. But it’s not women’s responsibility to fix bias and the wage gap by overcoming a confidence gap, as the commercial implies. Instead, it’s a systemic problem women have to recognize and navigate. We have to operate within the system as it exists today while — if we choose to — simultaneously trying to change it.

Don’t forget this is a commercial.

This is a commercial designed to sell deodorant. Like Pantene Pro-V and Always before it, this commercial attempts to co-opt feminist issues to sell a thing. ‘Femvertising,’ as it were, is all the rage these days.

That’s not necessarily a problem. Secret ad aside, while there’s an unsettling quality to femvertising, if I had to decide between being surrounded by ads that perpetuate the status quo (by body shaming or explicitly sexualizing women) or being subtly manipulated into buying things under a false pretense that those products are creating social change, I lean toward being manipulated.

I certainly don’t expect corporations to be altruistic, but Procter & Gamble missed a huge opportunity to both sell more of their product and actually impact social change. Had they ended the commercial with something about their corporate commitment to fair pay or a line about learning #SecretsToNegotiating via resources on their website, they would have increased both engagement and goodwill.

The business that brought us “Strong enough for a man, but made for a woman” could have actually empowered women by modeling an egalitarian work environment. Instead, they told women, “Negotiations are stressful and the wage gap is your fault, but at least you won’t smell.”

So the next question is, given the so called pink tax — in which companies charge more for the “feminine” version of products — will Procter & Gamble be charging 16 cents more for my deodorant than my husband’s?