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What are women apologizing for? [Commentary]

FeminismProcter & Gamble

"Sorry." It's a verbal crutch women often use instead of "I didn't hear what you said," or "Excuse me." A way of being extra polite.

It is also the subject of a new ad campaign by Procter & Gamble, the makers of Pantene hair products, which shows women at work and at home who seem to be apologizing for even existing.

A woman prefaces a question at a meeting with "sorry, but." Another young woman apologizes before entering someone's office. A mother says "sorry" as she hands off her son to his father so she can get dinner out of the fridge.

The ad then doubles back and shows the same women in the same situations, but this time they aren't apologizing. The woman who steals the covers back even says to her mate, "sorry, not sorry."

The ad is sleek and powerful. Listen to yourselves, ladies. How many times a day do you apologize? And what are you apologizing for?

Saying "sorry" can have an impact on the way we are perceived. Just like "um" or "like," you'd sound a lot smarter if you didn't litter your conversations with these useless words.

And men seem to have the confidence to say what they mean without apologizing first. In any case, it is unlikely they would give up the alpha dog position in the office by being apologetic all the time.

The ad is a follow-up to last fall's campaign, "Labels against Women," which showed how the same qualities in men and women come with different labels. He's persuasive, she's pushy. The dad working late is dedicated. The mom working late is selfish. It urged women not to let those labels stick.

That ad was only released in the Philippines, but when Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg of "Lean In" fame praised it, it went viral, and P&G bought time on U.S. television for it.

These ads are from the same inspiration as Dove's heartbreaking "Real Beauty" campaign of a couple of years ago, which showed that women do not think of themselves as pretty, but others do.

All ads manipulate, but these hit women at a tender spot. We have self-worth and self-image issues, and we know it. We just don't know how to shake them off.

But there is some corporate hypocrisy here, too. Pantene is trying to get you to buy its product by reminding you of all these negative stereotypes and then telling you to buck up and be strong. And the company gets bonus points by saying it is against these stereotypes.

It is a noble message, but the other message is that your hair needs to shine if you want to be successful. All the women in these commercials may be meek and apologetic, but their hair looks great.

I don't know. Did New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick get up this morning thinking about how to make his hair shine? More to the point, do you think he feels the need to make himself seem less of a threat and more likable by giving a little shrug and saying, "Sorry, but…," before telling sports reporters that what they are asking is none of their business.

Perhaps women would benefit by behaving with his sense of command. Own your space, own the room, instead of routinely apologizing for taking up oxygen.

Then again, this is just shampoo, and buying isn't going to change a workplace culture that is still, a half-century after the women's movement, unwelcoming, if not downright hostile, to women.

Susan Reimer's column appears on Mondays and Thursdays. She can be reached at sreimer@baltsun.com and @SusanReimer on Twitter.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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