Bic advert
The advert released by Bic to celebrate Women's Day in South Africa Bic/Facebook

"Look like a girl. Act like a lady. Think like a man. Work like a boss." This was the "empowering" slogan on an advert released by Bic to celebrate Women's Day in South Africa. The slogan, posted on Bic's Facebook page alongside a picture of a woman in a suit with folded arms, quickly attracted scorn on social media for peddling outdated and sexist notions.

The company swiftly apologised and deleted the post but many were left unimpressed, especially in light of the previous debacle over its pastel coloured pens "for women".

The idea that women need to police certain aspects of their identity in order to "get ahead" in business isn't new, and the list of directives with which we are bombarded can be tediously self-contradictory. In 2013, law firm Clifford Chance famously sent a memo to its female employees entitled "Presentation Tips For Women", which included such insightful gems as "wear a suit, not your party outfit" and advised "don't giggle", "don't squirm", and "don't mess with your glasses or hair".

On the other hand, a widely reported study in 2012 suggested women should flirt and use their "feminine charm" to get ahead at work. In 2013, the media trumpeted the results of a study that claimed "two thirds of British bosses say women should wear makeup if they want a successful career", but this might have come as a surprise to those who had read a different survey, just two years earlier, proclaiming: "One in three bosses now think women wear too much make-up to work".

Strangely, similar directives pertaining to how men as a homogenous group should dress and act at work seem to be few and far between. The Bic advert struck a raw nerve because women are sick and tired of being told that our dress and femininity (or lack thereof) are the most important thing about our workplace performance, or that we need to mimic more "manly" styles of working or communicating in order to succeed.

Perhaps removing some of the hurdles in women's way (such as systemic sexism and inherent bias) might be a more effective way of helping them to get ahead in the workplace, rather than telling them to jump higher and higher.

What is particularly interesting is that though it misfired spectacularly, the Bic advert's slogan was clearly originally intended to appeal to a burgeoning wave of feminism and female empowerment. Bic isn't the first company to try to jump aboard the feminist bandwagon – in fact, there has been a recent spate of "feminist" themed adverts, which have enjoyed varying degrees of success. From the Always "Like a Girl" campaign to Pantene's directive to stop saying sorry to Dove's Patches and Real Beauty videos, advertisers are falling over themselves to use the resurgence in feminist discourse to sell products.

Mixed reactions

Though there is an argument to be made that any widespread adoption of a feminist message is a positive step, the mixed reaction to these campaigns reveals an important warning: don't try to hijack a movement to sell your product unless you're really prepared to put your money where your mouth is.

It's worth noting that the most positively received adverts have been the ones which actually take women's needs and opinions into account
- Laura Bates

Some campaigns miss the point by a mile, such as the Bic advert or an equally unimpressive Snickers campaign that seemed to suggest all men in their natural state are misogynistic catcallers. Others, such as Dove's efforts, have received widespread criticism from women, not least for suggesting that it is our own silly insecurities, not society's ridiculous beauty standards, which lead to dissatisfaction with our looks.

It's worth noting that the most positively received adverts have been the ones which actually take women's needs and opinions into account and use a feminist message to promote a goal that is genuinely empowering and useful, such as Sport England's This Girl Can campaign, rather than those that simply pick up the feminist banner temporarily to peddle a product.

It seems ridiculous to have to say it but apparently some companies need reminding: women aren't stupid. If you want to take advantage of a feminist message in your advertising, you better be prepared to follow through by putting that idea into practice in your products and your company too. Once you know that Dove's parent company Unilever also owns the Lynx/Axe brand, famous for being accused of sexist advertising, for example, some might start to wonder whether its feminism is as skin-deep as its moisturisers.

Yes, we appreciate adverts that aren't stereotypical and shockingly sexist but we shouldn't really feel compelled to reward companies for clearing that low bar – it should be the norm, not the exception.

Laura Bates is the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project, which has collated over 80,000 women's stories of harassment and discrimination at work and in everyday life. She is also a prolific writer and the recipient of several awards. Follow Laura on Twitter here.