Pinkwashing: Or, How Not To Market to Women

Let me tell you a story about my first real published blog post. I was working as a technical writer for a guy who had just purchased a women’s career blog without any real idea of what he wanted to do with it. (And if you found me via this story about Writing While Female, yes, this was the same guy.) He was selling sponsored posts to more or less anyone who was capable of using PayPal and sending an email in English, and I ended up with the task of creating them. My first blogging assignment went something along the lines of “Write a 350 word post. Four of those words need to be “current stock market trends”, linking to this exact page. You get to choose the other 346. Have fun.” Ah, the beauty of artistic freedom! (Here, enjoy the Schadenfreude. The article is terrible.)

In the precisely thirty minutes that I had been given for this task, I had brainstormed and written a post that I thought would be helpful to the 20-something urban career women who were theoretically reading our blog. Since I just happened to be a 20-something urban career woman, I felt that I could connect authentically with our readers and give them something of substance out of this SEO backlink marketing nightmare. The post gave real world helpful advice on how to save money on interest and late fees. It ended with the call to action to save money, so that you can “actually get to use it on burritos and Breaking Bad DVD box sets instead of fees and interest payments!” I hit the “Save as Pending” button feeling positively smug, thinking that I had cleverly stuck it to the man and created some decent content whether they wanted it or not.

When the post went live, I Facebooked and tweeted the hell out of it. I was so damn proud to see my real name published on the real live internet! There it was, ready to both inform and entertain. I was pleased as punch, until I saw that my darling send-off line had had some editing, courtesy of my 26-year-old male boss: “actually get to use it on girl’s nights outs on the town or at home after buying old Sex and the City DVD box sets!”

Pink WashingWhat. The. Shit.

First of all. “Girls night out on the town”?? What the hell is that phrase even supposed to really mean? How often did my editor really imagine that grown women with full-time jobs get together to put on their heels, roam around town and see what sort of hijinks there are to be had? And, what, pillow fights in our lingerie afterwards, right? Like, yeah, I get that girls go out together, but it’s more dangerous to travel in a herd. The douches on South Street will just pick off the slowest looking one and m’lady her until she dies.

And, Sex and the City? Was he serious? I’ve never seen a single episode of Sex and the City. Do you know why? It went off the air in 2004. I was thirteen years old in 2004. So were the majority of our readers. Most of us didn’t have our driver’s licenses in 2008 when the first movie came out. None of our readers had ever given a shit about Sex and the City. And even if they had, they sure as hell didn’t still give a shit now, a full decade after it went off the air. Breaking Bad, however, had just aired its finale. Everyone was talking about Breaking Bad.

I learned three hard lessons that day:

1. Editors are not always your friend.

2. In an age when Orange is the New Black exists, Sex and the City is the only “girl show” that some people can think of. Also, the phrase “girl show”.

3. There are men out there in the world who think they know more about what 25-year-old women want to read than a 25-year-old woman does, and they will unashamedly tell her that to her face.

To this day, I am still ashamed that my name is attached to the line “Sex and the City box sets”. My writing got pinkwashed in an attempt to make my “niche” reference more relatable to a broader audience. Instead, he alienated everybody that would have read it. Let me tell you something: If you honest to God believe that women don’t watch Breaking Bad or eat burritos, you have no business in marketing. You don’t know what you’re talking about, and you don’t know who you’re talking to.

This is something I’ve run into over and over again in my career. That wasn’t the first argument I’d had with my editor, and it wouldn’t be the last. If I tried to tell him that “a girl will relate to this”, he’d tell me they wouldn’t. If I told him that I and many people I knew would relate to it, he’d tell me that I wasn’t representative of my demographic. That’s right, folks. When I tried to tell him that his definition of “girl” and what girls cared about was wrong, he then concluded that I must not really be a girl. I’m certainly not going to pretend that I can speak for every woman aged 19–28 who lives in a city and wants a better job than they have. I can’t even speak for most of them. But Dear Lord, I can at least speak to a lot of them. Why do writers think that a reader will be turned off if they mention the wrong show or book or coffee flavor or color? Writing a blog post is just like meeting people at a party. If you aren’t an interesting person, then name-dropping that one show you think they probably like won’t make you friends.

I have a real lived experience to draw from, and the real lived experiences of the women that I hang out with, work with, speak to, admire, and read about. My editor was drawing from a conveniently neat, short, and pre-packaged list of “universal” ideas about who women are and what they want.

If you’re in the business of marketing to women, do me a favor and picture your customer. Just one woman, the embodiment of everyone you’re trying to speak to and connect with. If you think about your audience the way my editor thought about his audience, then the woman in your head right now cares a whole lot about what she wears and what she looks like. She connects with appeals that are emotional rather than rational. She’s super fond of exactly three colors, and won’t buy anything that isn’t in one of those colors. She smiles at salads a lot. Who the hell is this person supposed to be? Who really looks like that? And WHY for the love of all that’s holy do you refuse to sell to anyone but her?? Why, when your CUSTOMERS try to tell you that they don’t look like that, will you brand them as “outside of your customer base” before you’ll change your definition?

Do you want to know how to sell things to women? Some people will charge you thousands for training seminars to teach you the trick. I’ll tell you for free: Go find a real, living, breathing female. Ask her what she cares about. And when she tells you, and she doesn’t give you the information that you expected to hear, don’t tell her that she’s wrong.

This article was originally posted on Medium.

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