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Why Brands Are Telling Single Women to Treat Themselves

Fewer people than ever are getting married, and marketing firms know it

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

Earlier this month a friend sent me a screen grab of an ad that popped up in her feed for something called “Singles Swag.” “It’s a subscription box for SINGLES,” she wrote, horrified. Though Facebook advertisements are famous for their creepy hyperpersonalization, products designed to align with a person’s single status felt like an especially weird item to sell for profit. I clicked to the website’s About Us section, where the company vows to “make single women look and feel beautiful, while empowering and inspiring them.” The items that would ostensibly help a Singles Swag customer achieve that goal include goods like nail polish, a guide to Skinnygirl cocktail recipes, organic coconut butter cookies, and a retractable lint brush — all stuffed into a box stamped with the hashtag “#LOVEYOURSELF.”

Even if Single Swag’s branding lacks a certain subtlety in appealing to its target demographic, its effort to cater to young, single women is part of a growing trend among startups and major businesses. 2014 was the first year there were more single American adults than married ones in the U.S. About 31 million women, or a third of the female population, make up a group the industry sometimes calls “single indies,” or people in their late 20s and up who aren’t married, don’t live with a partner, and don’t have kids, according to Jamie Dunham, the chief brand strategist of Brand Wise, a consulting agency that specializes in marketing to women. These women tend to have more disposable income compared with women who don’t fit this criteria. While the world’s think-piece writers are still attempting to explain exactly why people are choosing to skip marriage, advertisers have slowly started recalibrating the language of their campaigns to speak to a new kind of consumer.

“More and more companies are realizing that single women have a lot of disposable income and they don’t have the obligations of a family,” Toby Bloomberg, a digital strategist, told me. “Women are professionals, they’re making a significant amount of money, and as a segment they’re quite viable [to sell products to].”

In the case of a few budding startups, a new generation of singles has inspired revamped products, including individual meal-delivery plans or single-serving food products, app-based cleaning and repair services, and subscription services for luxury goods like lingerie or colorful socks. But for the most part, people want to buy the same stuff — they’d just prefer if the language companies used to market that stuff to them was different. Dunham says jewelry is a good example of that. What was once an industry dominated by slogans like “Every kiss begins with Kay,” must now wrestle with the fact that their TV, print, and online advertising must appeal to female customers whose current relationship statuses are question marks.

“Now women buy significant pieces of jewelry for themselves,” said Dunham. “They’re not waiting for a man. We see that they’re making decisions in everything from purchasing homes, to cars, to travel.”

The companies that have become more aware of their increasingly single audience, however, are leaning on a treacherous script: the suggestion that we all need — no, deserve — to treat ourselves from time to time. The concept for what is now a tenet in advertising strategies originated from a 2011 Parks and Recreation bit in which Tom Haverford (Aziz Ansari) and Donna Meagle (Retta) spend a day celebrating themselves by buying stuff like “clothes, fragrances, massages, mimosas, and fine leather goods.” When it aired, the bit’s “treat yo’ self” catchphrase immediately squirmed into millennials’ vocabulary and onto sorority-printed tank tops as a mantra for justifying luxury purchases. Six years later, many advertisers focusing on singles now see it as the philosophical rallying cry for their changing customer base.

“There are a lot of products that may have been marketed as gifts before that are now a gift for yourself,” said Dunham. “So that’s how that whole ‘treat yourself’ phenomenon became pretty big.”

With that catchphrase as a philosophical seed, an entire word cloud of empty encouragement has sprung from advertisers in recent years. Brands aren’t selling things to you, they’re inspiring, surprising, celebrating, and motivating you. As Jia Tolentino noted in The New York Times Magazine last year, marketers have deemed everything from the Pure Barre workout to purchasing full-bottomed lingerie empowering, despite the fact that the word now “invokes power while signifying the lack of it.” In some cases, companies targeting women have even attempted to intertwine their products with the ideals of feminism.

The new and endless advertising push for single women to indulge and empower themselves is what brought us Singles Swag. The company founder, Jonathan Beskin, followed the playbook on how to target the rising market of single women so closely that he never realized such blatant stereotyping might offend his target market. That’s not to say his business isn’t successful: Beskin said that his subscribers have grown from 50 people in the first month to 10,000 in under a year. When I pushed him to explain how, say, a lint roller was meant to empower a single woman, he said the name of the box was simply part of the marketing language that included “empowering quotes, humor, and sarcasm” that his team has used to build a fan base on sites like Instagram. So why, I asked, use a label that has the potential to alienate consumers?

“The single aspect is more about our messaging, and the messaging we include in the box,” he said. “We don’t make assumptions that single women need this, or need something different. It’s just kind of a fun way to treat yourself.”

I ended the conversation confused. The box is marketed to singles, but it’s just a random collection of unrelated products that fit vaguely into a valuable brand persona. Either way, the underlying capitalist message is the same: Above all else, treat yourself.