Deodorant ad pulls the ladder out from under a woman’s climb to success

Flipping through the February edition of Better Homes and Gardens magazine,  I happened upon the following advertisement for Secret deodorant for women.

I’m not sure how I’m supposed to react to this ad, except to say how very disappointing I find it.

The pink dress, the 3-inch yellow heels, the implication that helping this woman smell “fresh” is Secret’s sole contribution to encouraging women along their climb to success… Where to begin?

Yesterday, around the world, an estimated 4.8 million men, women, and children united in an effort to show that the opinions of women and other “minorities” matter in politics and in life. It was an astounding effort, much greater than most people seemed to expect. And although, nothing has actually been accomplished yet, the 673 marches are still symbolic of what people can accomplish when they decide to show up and unite their voices in a fight for equality and against injustice.

That’s partly why this Secret ad was so disappointing to me.

Not that I don’t understand what Secret was trying to achieve. It’s clear the company thought that by showing a strong woman literally climbing her way up to a new level of success, women would feel that Secret is supportive of their efforts in the workplace. However, I don’t understand why the company thought this woman needed to look party ready to convey that message.

The three men at the table she’s attempting to join are dressed identically in standard grey suits and brown shoes. I want to know why she isn’t also wearing a suit and sensible shoes.

Does Secret think we’re not going to identify her as a woman if she isn’t wearing a pink sundress? 

And the heels? Besides undermining her perception of strength (Does she really think she can’t measure up to those men without ludicrously tall shoes?), they’re an odd choice for fitting the metaphorical scenario we’re asked to believe – that her climb up the corporate ladder is every bit as grueling as climbing a mountain or scaling a high rise building that is somehow missing any staircases or elevators. (Did someone kick the ladder out from under her to make her climb more difficult?)

Again, I get what Secret was going for. It was trying to be understanding of how hard women have to work in the corporate world. It’s a well-known mantra that women have to work twice as hard as men to achieve the same success, which in itself is incredibly offensive, however accurate.

So Secret isn’t revealing any secrets here; in fact I think it’s assuming we already know that women “have to work harder to get ahead.” But that’s also part of what’s so discouraging about this ad.

It misses the mark of trying to make us believe that she’s worked twice as hard to get where she is. She’s arriving late to the table, and I would imagine if she’s really put in that much effort to get there, she would have dressed for the seriousness of the situation.

Moreover, the ad tries to be sensitive without offering any solutions. It tells women, “We know your struggle, and we’re going to help mask your efforts so that the men at the table won’t realize how hard you worked to get there.”

I find this ad to be sad and self-defeating. The woman in pink, struggling to maintain equal footing with the men at the table, doesn’t really look like she belongs there, does she? She looks different from them in every possible way, and she goes unnoticed by them in her struggle to join them.

It’s almost like this ad is saying, “Though we sympathize with your struggle, as a woman you’re never really going to fit in with the men at that table.”

And in 2017, that kind of advertising is not at all acceptable. We need to be telling women that they are every bit as worthy as men. Even if we know how hard their struggle is going to be and how long that road to success might take, we still need to give every assurance that women are on equal footing with men.

The only way we as humans can achieve anything meaningful is if we can already imagine ourselves succeeding. And this ad doesn’t achieve that. It shows a woman’s struggle, not a woman’s success.

I would have preferred to see an ad of a woman doing something to show she belongs at that table, something that shows she has the same skills the men do and can lead the conversation.

Maybe she doesn’t need to wear a suit, per se, but how about something that shows she understands the concept of “dress code”? It would have illustrated her attempt to prove herself, but would not have separated her so distinctly by dressing her like a little girl trying to make it in a man’s world.

Ultimately, I guess that’s what so offends me about this ad. It’s 2017 – a year in which 19 world leaders are women*, and a woman (Hillary Clinton) won the popular vote in the most recent U.S. election. 

 Why are we still calling it a man’s world?

* Based on January 2017 data from



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9 responses to “Deodorant ad pulls the ladder out from under a woman’s climb to success

  1. Jill

    I am so grateful I found this commentary! I thought it was just me….I was insanely offended and had all the same thoughts you did!

    • Thanks for your comment, Jill, and thanks for reading! I couldn’t stop staring at that ad when I first saw it, wondering how or why the designers and editors who approved that ad thought it was a good idea.

  2. Shannon

    I am so glad I wasn’t the only person who thought this advertisement for Secret Deodorant was poorly executed. I was just flipping through the same issue of Better Homes and Gardens and I was so shocked when I got to this page! I found your blog after I did a google search regarding the ad and I was so relieved to find such a well written article that said everything I was thinking (and more). Thank you!

  3. H j e

    If you understand the general concept of the ad.. that women have to work harder than men to achieve the same status.. then you shouldn’t get hung up on whether or not this woman chooses to wear a pink dress. Feminism comes in many forms. It doesn’t mean that a woman needs to dress equal to a man in order to be respected.

    • Thanks so much for reading, and I appreciate your comment, even if you didn’t agree with me! You’re right, women should wear what they feel most confident and comfortable wearing, and I certainly wasn’t trying to imply that a woman wearing a dress can’t or shouldn’t be taken seriously. And I also agree that feminism comes in many different forms. It means choosing to work outside OR inside the home. It means choosing to marry or not to marry. It means the right of a woman to choose her life — and the right to be treated with as much respect for that choice as a man would be.

      When I said I understand what the ad people intended, of course I was only guessing.

      The clothing wasn’t all I found wrong with this ad, but I’ll admit it was the majority, and not only because of the dress but also because of all the options the ad designers must have overlooked or decided against to eventually decide on that dress. After all, the woman in the ad didn’t dress herself. She was designed intentionally for some sort of point. And maybe that point was exactly what (I think) you pointed out, that a woman doesn’t have to dress like a man or fit any one specific mold to achieve success. And if that’s the case, then great; I totally agree. But I felt it was weird that of all the styles they could have given her, they gave her a pink (in my opinion, party) dress and heels that seemed so completely ill-equipped to help her in her “climb.” There are so many other dresses and shoes they could have given her…not to mention all the non dresses. And I’m still not clear on why the three men are meant to look identical. I think I could have forgiven the pink dress if they had been wearing three unique outfits, because then at least it would have looked like a creative meeting — one she looks more suited for. I still think singling her out like that makes her look like someone who doesn’t belong.

  4. Leigha

    Kudos to you for articulating the complexities of this issue so well. I saw this ad in a parenting magazine this week and was angry. I did a quick Google search and was happy to find your anaylysis to see that I am,not alone in my negative reaction. The ad is completely unacceptable and does absolutely nothing to inspire the next generation of female leaders.

  5. Pingback: The Most Valuable Lesson I Learned Climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro - BetterUp

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