Sorry, But Pantene Ain’t Cutting It.

Pantene’s “Sorry, Not Sorry” ad urging women to stop apologizing  

Well-intentioned, well-meaning, but well-executed? Yeah, that would be a no. In Pantene’s 2014 ad entitled “Sorry, Not Sorry,” an attempt is made to call attention to the tendency -specifically for women- to apologize. The ad cuts from scene to scene of female-identifying individuals of varying racial and ethnic backgrounds apologizing to male-identifying individuals. Examples featured include a woman sitting in a conference room asking her male colleague, “sorry, can I ask a stupid question?” or a woman sitting in an office waiting room apologizing for a man’s arm taking up too much of her personal space, causing her to say “sorry” and move her arm. These are just two of the many examples Pantene touches upon in their ad. Then, suddenly, a dramatic cut is made, and the screen states in big, bold black lettering, “don’t be sorry, be strong and shine.” The scenes are preceded to be re-told. The woman in the conference room confidently says, “I have a question,” and the woman in the waiting room refuses to move her arm when the man gets in her space.

Screenshot from commercial of women moving her arm to make space for a man’s arm

Screenshots from commercial of Pantene’s message to women 

This command feels more imposing rather than empowering. Additionally, The “be” in “be Strong” is directed at women and their hair, implying women are not strong if they apologize and not strong if they do not use Pantene products. This messaging works to diminish the power of apologies and perpetuate certain beauty standards for hair care.

My major qualm with this ad is that it does not get at the root issue occurring; rather, the ad shames women for their inherent sorry problem. Granted, there is only so much Pantene can achieve in a 1:17 clip, but they should have known what they were signing up for. Therefore, this ad feels like it’s shaming women rather than “empowering women” because there is no acknowledgment about why women feel the urge to apologize so frequently. As seen above in the ad, the use of grammatical imperatives is practically yelling at women saying they are not enough. Therefore this is the individual women’s fault, which is simply incorrect. This sorry issue is a societal condition, not a group of women who don’t understand social cues. 

On top of the scenes of apologies and dramatic phrases flashing across the screen, the spa-esque background music irked me. A single piano key is repeatedly played at a slow tempo; suddenly, once the message to stop apologizing flashes across the screen and the scenes are repeated with no apologies from the women, the piano playing gets faster. A fast strumming of a guitar is now audible. The stark change in tempo and guitar accompaniment sounds so disjointed and comes across as cheesy. While Pantene is trying to empower women, the music is another example of how their ad falls short. 

This brings me to my second point, the way the ad tried to relate the message to their product is half-baked and undercooked. Profiting off of “women empowerment” poses its own moral dilemma that unfortunately seems inevitable in our capitalist society, but if you’re gonna do it, at least do it well. Sure, one could argue that no men apologizing in the video implicitly depicts the patriarchy being at fault in the matter and the greater systemic issue in educating our youth. But I think that would be giving this ad too much credit. Instead, this ad comes across as this sorry problem being a “women’s problem,” which is seen through the commands for women to “be strong,” and even in the left-hand corner of the cover of the ad saying, “why are women always over-apologizing?” These phrases feed into the idea that women don’t just apologize sometimes but “always.” The ad makes this dangerous generalization that paints women in one light and fuels the gender binary. 

This ad promotes the binary of men and women and thus leaves no room for representation of other genders. I would be remiss if I did not contextualize this ad. In 2014, this ad was labeled as groundbreaking and perceived as empowering. However, reading it from the vantage point of 2022, the ad lacks an understating of intersectionality and its relation to patriarchal society. Events such as the Women’s March in 2017 remade the concept of intersectionality more visible to the public. The Guiding Visions and Definition of Principles for the March explicitly addressed intersectionality in its framework. Pantene’s ad does not promote intersectional thinking, therefore, does not successfully get out the complexities of the “sorry” issue being a product of the capitalist patriarchy. Only conventionally attractive women are depicted in the ad. There was no attempt at body inclusivity or representation around disability or even an attempt to address how gender nonconforming individuals fit into this equation. 

In 2014, many articles came out applauding Pantene’s ad and discussing how it helped specifically women reflect on the idea of the apology. The Washington Post wrote, “pantene calls out women for saying sorry,” and The Huffington Post claimed Pantene “puts the power back in women’s language.” These praising reviews work to a. shame women for their word choice, and b. reinforce a gender binary by suggesting that there is such a thing as “women’s language” to even begin with. 

Digging deeper into the “Shine Strong” campaign, I discovered how this ad was released alongside Pantene’s “Shine Strong Fund.” This fund’s purpose was to write grants and give women access to influential leaders. However, when I tried to access the campaign, I was greeted with the words “page not found” on the Pantene website, which left me feeling even more certain the only apology needed is one from Pentene to do better.

Screenshot of Pantene’s web page on the “Shine Strong Fund.” 

References:

Bennett, Jessica. “Pantene’s ‘I’m Sorry’ Ad Tells Women to Stop Apologizing #Shinestrong.” Time, Time, 18 June 2014, https://time.com/2895799/im-sorry-pantene-shinestrong/

Butler, Bethonie. “This Pantene Commercial Calls Women out for Saying ‘Sorry’ Too Often.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 30 Nov. 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/wp/2014/06/18/this-pantene-commercial-calls-women-out-for-saying-sorry-too-often/.

The Huffington Post Canada. “The One Speaking Tic Women Need to Stop Right Now.” HuffPost, HuffPost, 19 June 2014, https://www.huffpost.com/archive/ca/entry/pantene-not-sorry-ad_n_5511108.

“Shine Strong .” Pantene , Pantene , https://pantene.com/shinestrong.

“Sorry, Not Sorry .” YouTube , Cause Marketing , 12 Mar. 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TcGKxLJ4ZGI. Accessed 3 Mar. 2022.

“What the Women’s March Teaches Us about Intersectionality.” Anti-Defamation League, ADL, 24 Jan. 2017, https://www.adl.org/blog/what-the-womens-march-teaches-us-about-intersectionality

2 thoughts on “Sorry, But Pantene Ain’t Cutting It.

  1. I thought your analysis explained really well how empowerment campaigns can have victim-blaming undertones and unintentionally reproduce what they are fighting against. I found the advertisement’s demand to “be strong” extremely hard to swallow since it assumes that the women saying sorry aren’t strong in the first place. Having to navigate a male-dominated workplace environment or the patriarchic expectations of married life is challenging enough already. Some people aren’t in a position where they can take charge and “shine”, especially if their safety or job is at risk. I agree with your point that this is a larger issue that forces people to apologize for simply existing and be in a subordinate position in order to survive. I also think that the message to “be strong” can come across as secretly urging people to be more like men. Who says that anyone should take a dominating position in the workplace instead of an empathetic, collaborative one? Likewise, why should anyone be an obnoxious cover hog? These actions of taking charge and being inconsiderate of your own impact that are valued so highly by the male perspective maybe shouldn’t be something to aspire to. Maybe everyone should be apologizing more and be aware of how they influence others.

  2. This is a really comprehensive and thought-out analysis. Thanks for sharing. I found it especially interesting how you said that the ad wasn’t getting at the root of the problem. Rather, it seems to be blaming for something that is ultimately a product of the patriarchy and women being told that they should be submissive and take up less space. With most ads, there will be the element of who is this really benefitting, because feminism is being commercialized to benefit Pantene. We talked about this in class, how feminism has become mainstream and commercialized, but how ultimately that can harm women. It is especially concerning that it is for Pantene, which would suggest that women are more powerful when they buy products for their hair. Therefore, isn’t it just reinforcing these patriarchal ideas? Great choice for the analysis!

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