Think pink — but not because marketing execs think you should

OPINION: Pink is loud, brash, and hard to miss. Lauren McKeon on why women should reclaim it for themselves
By Lauren McKeon - Published on Aug 09, 2017
For decades, marketers have pinkified anything they want to sell women — from feminist books to feminism itself. (fstop123/iStock)



A few years ago, I (inadvertently) started building my “feminist bookshelf.” It’s by no means a complete collection, but it is exhaustive — classics and indies, from publishers big and small, spanning decades. Female Chauvinist Pigs. The Female Eunuch. The End of Men. The XX Factor. Cinderella Ate My Daughter. The Beauty Myth. Asking for It. We Should All Be Feminists. (To name just a few.) I’ve built it slowly, dis- and reassembling it as I’ve moved from apartment to apartment. But it wasn’t until my most recent move — and an impulsive decision to colour-code my shelves — that I realized something: most of these books are very, very pink.

I knew so-called chick lit was uniformly, offensively pink, with dust jackets often featuring a high-heeled shoe, an engagement ring, or a wine glass for good measure. But I hadn’t realized the paint-it-pink approach had infiltrated non-fiction as well. As if women would shriek and reflexively discard any non-pink-jacketed book. As if it were a bug, or worse: a power tool.

When it comes to marketing books to women, pink is a fraught colour. Actually, when it comes to marketing anything to women, pink is a fraught colour. When I was a teenager (and budding feminist), I loathed pink. I would not wear pink clothes; I would not buy pink stationery. I wouldn’t be caught dead picking up anything the colour of dragonfruit or Pepto-Bismol or ballet shoes. I despised it for all it seemed to represent: femininity, softness, politeness, prettiness. The usual suffocating stereotypes.

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I wasn’t the only one associating pink with all things princessy. Marketers have relentlessly pushed pink on women and girls, urging consumers to equate colour and gender. The popular marketing credo “shrink it and pink it” has stuck, too.

For decades, corporate execs have pinkified anything they want to sell women, whether it’s a product (like a book) or a movement (like feminism). Breast cancer has received the pink treatment. Barbie, too. In 2009, Dell pinked up some of its computers — to coincide with the launch of its impossibly ill-conceived “Della” website for women. Also on the pink list: for-her power tools, sports apparel (typically rounded out with sparkles or rhinestones), parking spots, beer, razors, guns — the list goes on, and only gets more absurd.

Marketers call women’s money “the pink dollar” — as if we’re a special interest group, not half the population. Or, more to the point: as if we don’t account for more than $20 trillion in worldwide spending, or more than 85 per cent of consumer purchases in North America. Women even purchase more than 50 per cent of “traditional male products” on the market, such as cars, electronics, and home improvement items.

The “think pink” approach to selling books has served only to enforce the pernicious idea that women’s writing isn’t a serious business — or at least not as serious as men’s writing is. This doesn’t just devalue women’s writing; it makes our ideas, our creative processes, and our work seem less-than. This is particularly dangerous when it comes to non-fiction (feminist non-fiction especially), because it also signals to the reader that these books — and the women who write them — are tame and inoffensive. They reflect the popular notion, held predominately by those outside the movement, that feminism should be nicer. Pinker.

Incidentally, I’d like us all to dismiss the notion that a friendlier feminism might attract more allies, and instead recognize it for what it is: logic that rewards women for playing by the old rules. Fighting for your right to thrive, to live with dignity and free of violence — to simply exist — is not polite business. It’s messy and loud and does not always fit with bland, corporatized versions of pink “empowerment.” We need to stop diluting our message, our intelligence and ourselves just to make people listen. That makes it okay; it’s not.

If that sounds over-the-top, consider Nickianne Moody’s 2007 treatise on fiction marketing, Judging a Book by Its Cover. In it, she cites research concluding that while women are likely to pick up a “male”-looking book, the converse is not true of men — especially if the book has a pink cover. (Also: if it mentions the word “love”.) What’s more, many female fiction authors have noted that men often write them asking for non-pink covers, so they can read the books without embarrassment. A pink cover might as well be a “women only” sign.

In recent years, women marketing experts have started to rebel against the (supposed-but-not-really) wisdom of “shrink it and pink it.” Several have published books — including Don’t Think Pink by Lisa Johnson and Andrea Learned, Why She Buys by Bridget Brennan, and Why Marketing to Women Doesn’t Work by Jenny Darroch — resulting in a sort of anti-pink movement. Together, these authors urge businesses to stop thinking of women as one homogenous group. (This probably shouldn’t be revolutionary, but for an industry that still pigeonholes women as housebound soap-watchers whose interests are limited to mopping and doling out cough syrup, it kind of is.)

While pink might deter men, these books note, it doesn’t necessarily attract women either. It’s a default option, when women crave variety — and an end to stereotypes. Indeed, more than 90 per cent of women feel advertisers don’t understand them. My teenage self would’ve cheered the end of pink, yet that’s not quite the revolution most women-first marketers are pushing. Rather, the rebellion is against the pink-or-nothing approach. If women had a rainbow, they might choose pink anyway. And they might also start the work of cleaving it from its worst interpretations.

Besides, it’s not as if publishers have a hard time getting women to buy books. Women consistently out-purchase men, and significantly so. Yet my to-buy list remains overwhelmingly pink. But here’s the thing: the longer I stare at my bookshelf, the more I’m convinced the problem is not pink itself.

Pink defenders often point to the history of the colour. It was once considered masculine, a boy’s version of men’s red (think: war, blood); then it became gender neutral for a while before marketers gave it the connotations it has today. And since my youthful days as a pink-hater, I’ve come to wonder: How is it we can see all these brilliant, meticulously thought-out and reported, tough, original ideas wrapped in pink and still think they’re meaningless fluff? How many books will it take before we flip the script and associate pink-covered books with the words they contain?

Today, when I see pink, here’s what comes to mind: an unflinching demand to be heard. Hot-pink-covered women-written non-fiction is hard to ignore. The burning pop of colour forbids it. It is not something you glance past on the shelf. I like to think these books are reclaiming pink, as women have reclaimed so many other things, even if that was never the marketers’ intention. I like to think that, as we reclaim pink, we also stake a claim in the creative and literary worlds — a sign that reads, “Pay attention: we belong.” Full disclosure: the cover of my upcoming non-fiction feminist book has a dash of bold pink. I love it. I chose it. It’s badass.

Lauren McKeon is the digital editor of The Walrus.

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