How the NCAA threw a wrench in the female empowerment trend.


SS+K, Bully Pulpit Interactive, and Frontier Solutions have been working with the NCAA since July 2015. And in that time, we have helped their organization both understand and engage new audiences about their passion for creating opportunity for college athletes: through their commitment to academics, well-being and fairness. So when the ask came to empower female athletes in ad, we, two female creatives, were pissed.

Why do we still need “female empowerment” ads in 2016? Who are these ads really for? On the other hand, women’s power and strength is constantly being undermined, so the real question became: “Why do women need to keep telling you they are powerful?” And while we can point to individual commercials as being provocative and powerful in their own right, collectively the entire category of “female empowerment” ads just seemed to us like it should be obsolete.

But the fact that the NCAA has the proof to support their claim that they seek to create equal opportunity for athletes of all genders made our jobs a little easier, and made us, quite frankly, less pissed. So my partner and I proposed a new way to empower women by doing the opposite of what was expected: questioning the need for female empowerment ads within a female empowerment ad.

We wanted to change the approach to the trend. If we say “women can do anything”, it tacitly accepts there are people out there who need to be told that. People who think women are lesser. And we know they’re out there. The Olympics acted as a global stage for powerful women only to be robbed of newspaper covers and first mentions in headlines after winning. For instance, when Corey Cogdell-Unrein won a bronze medal for trap shooting in Rio, the Chicago Tribune didn’t even mention her name or event. The tweet read, “Wife of a Bears lineman wins a bronze medal today in Rio Olympics.” And while NBC aired a primetime countdown clock between two of Michael Phelps’ races, they didn’t air Simone Manuel’s historic gold medal ceremony until moments before midnight.

So, how about if we have female athletes say they are done doing female empowerment ads? Could that change the way we look at this category of advertising? Not so much ad-by-ad, but the entire strategy behind creating the work.

There have been many incredibly talented female creatives before us who have done work we are inspired by and look up to. Without those ads, we might never have been able to do this one. But now it’s time to reevaluate how we talk to women – and to those who need talking to about women’s strength. Because we, too, are done accepting the need for this category.

– Alyssa Georg & Elena Knox
This Commentary was originally published in MediaPost.