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Girl Effect In Nike's Campaign

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Media campaigns, especially those by a well – known brand, generate a lot of interest. Campaigns which are a part of corporate social responsibility (CSR) attract viewers and investors with their branding strategies.

Nike’s ‘girl effect’ campaign does just that. It has received widespread support from multinational organisations and their programmes run in many countries. However, as a researcher in the field of cross cultural studies, it is important to look beyond the attractive advertisements to understand what is truly being said or even left unsaid. Advertisements for aid campaigns such as this demonstrate the underlying power relations and discourses that come together in such scenario. Two videos, ‘the girl effect’ and ‘the clock is ticking’, published by Nike as part of this campaign have been critically analysed in this paper. A transcript of the videos can be found in Annexure 1.

These videos have garnered much interest over the last decade from scholars in the field of development studies and from feminist scholars. However, there is not much research addressing the cross cultural implications of such media representation of girls living in poverty. The aim of this paper is to use Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) to take a three pronged approach using discourses from development studies, gender/ feminist studies and cross cultural scholarship to infer the implications of the videos.

The purpose of this research is to understand how women and girls living in poverty are portrayed in such aid campaigns with a development focus. To do so, we will look at how the assumptions and stereotypes of women and girls living in poverty that are being normalised and propagated through this campaign. We will also concern ourselves with the representation of hierarchies between global north and global south within the process of aid giving seen here.

This paper will begin with a brief overview of the literature in the aforementioned fields and draw on theories made relevant therein. It will then explain Fairclough’s approach to Critical Discourse Analysis which has been used in this paper. Since this is a CDA study where it is difficult to present the data without explanation, the analysis section will present the findings and discuss them with supporting theories wherever possible. The conclusion will wrap the paper together by showing how the main research question has been answered.

Literature review

Gender and development (GAD) have been tightly intertwined in global development policy for decades (Jackson and Pearson, 1998). As Jackson (1998) states, tackling the issue of women in poverty has become a justification for development based interventions on behalf of many global organizations to ‘improve’ the lives of said women.

Since the 1980s, United Nations and World Bank policies have emphasised on the importance of women in the workforce for the socio-economic development of the world (Jackson, 1998). Nike’s campaign takes this one step further by focusing on girls. This presentation of investing in girls as a solution to poverty will be critically analysed by building on the work done by Bent (2013), Hickel (2014), Siddiqi (2009) and World Bank (2008). Their work surrounding the ‘invest in girls’ message that this campaign promotes will be used to interpret ideologies made relevant in the videos. As both Jackson (1998) and Bent (2013) argue, girls are, in this case, being politicised for fulfilling a neoliberal agenda.

As mentioned earlier, this paper draws from discourses of women’s studies and postcolonial feminist theories, development studies and cross cultural studies. Unlike most development and feminist research that tends to use the ‘west’ as an all-encompassing term in their research, this paper will follow traditions of cross – cultural communication to avoid using such blanket terms. In its stead, the metaphoric ‘global north’ and ‘global south’ will be used, which has less to do with geographical location. These terms are also less imperialistic in nature than using the terms ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ (Dados and Connell, 2012; Mohanty, 2003). The use of the term ‘global south’ is an attempt to shift the focus on development or cultural difference when referring to different nations to emphasis on geopolitical relations of power between them. It refers to nations outside Europe and North America such as Latin America, Asia, Africa and Oceania. The language of North-South affords researchers an avenue to contest cultural homogenisation which is a result of globalisation (Dados and Connell, 2013).

The field of development studies includes a wide range of theories from Rostow’s Five Stages of Growth (1960), Dependency Theory (Dos Santos, 1970), the capability approach (Sen, 1985) and so on (Ravenhill, 2011). Today, the term ‘development’ refers to a combination of all these. This paper takes a broader understanding of the word to represent both policies and practices of development agencies such as governments, international organisations, NGOs etc., and socio economic change (Jackson and Pearson, 1998).

This paper will draw on cross cultural scholarship to analyse oppositional girlhoods as made relevant within the data to understand the impact such a message has (Bent, 2013; Mohanty, 1988, 2003, 2013; Siddiqi (2009). It will attempt to deconstruct the notion of ‘saving’ poor girls by building on research by Bent (2013), Hickel (2014), Shain (2013) and Siddiqi (2009). This research utilises arguments on representation provided by Chandra Mohanty (1988) in her book ‘Under Western Eyes’ about cross cultural feminist scholarship as seen in the global north and the global south.

In the media, there tends to be a bipolarisation of representation between the self and the ‘other’ (Caldas-Coulthard, 2003; Said, 2003; Hickel, 2014). This language of the media tends to be “one of the most pervasive and widespread discourses that people from all sorts of literate societies are exposed to” (Caldas-Coulthard, 2003, pp. 272-273). In these discourses, ‘we’ refers the ‘civilized world’ in ‘the west’ as opposed to the ‘other’ countries where social issues crop up from. This paper observes such a cross – cultural representation of the ‘other’ in media discourses through the videos analysed. Building on such research, we look at how people and their social practices are recontextualised and, how national/ geographical identities are constructed in the media through texts and images.

This construction of the ‘other’, portrays poor girls as needing ‘saving’. This paper builds on research conducted by Siddiqi (2009) in her article, ‘Do Bangladeshi factory workers need saving? Sisterhood in the post-sweatshop era’ that looks at how feminists concerned with the impact of neoliberal policies on ‘third world workers’ (in sweatshops) negotiate the impact of progressive political interventions in their lives without promoting a ‘culture of global moralism’. Her article concerns itself with the tensions inherent between ‘local’ and ‘global’ feminist viewpoints by reflecting on cultural relativism in interaction with ‘others’ which is a tension that we will locate within the data analysed herein. The troublesome oversimplifications that arise out of such analyses and, power relations that are addressed and ignored that she highlights in her research support arguments made in this paper. The production of ‘ethical obligations to ‘save’ women workers’ that she reflects on can be evidenced in the girl effect campaign videos. Since the focus of both her article and this paper is the female ‘third world worker’, some of her arguments will be built upon to analyse the impact that the girl effect campaign claims to have.

This research will develop arguments provided in Bent’s (2013) article ‘A different girl effect: producing political girlhoods in the ‘invest in girls’ climate’ that problematizes how discourses such as the girl effect campaign influence girls’ political subjectivity and agency. By building on her work on the construction of girls’ identities as oppositional, the reconstruction of colonial power structures, the notion of ‘danger’ associated with the global south and how the ‘invest in girls’ mantra fits in with it all, this paper will show how ‘cultural’ identities are being constructed as heterogenous categories on the basis of geographic and economic conditions. Such a representation supports a neo-colonial construct of identity. Evidence of this will be analysed through the data.

By looking at Linda Hayhurst’s (2013) article, ‘Girls as the ‘New’ Agents of Social Change? Exploring the ‘Girl Effect’ through Sport, Gender and Development Programs in Uganda’, we are able to draw from the actual impact of one of the programmes under the girl effect campaign in Uganda. Her article emphasis on the construction of girls as agents of social change and the impact such a representation has on ‘real’ girls living through it. She questions how these girls deal with resistance and, structural and social inequalities that exist around them but are not the concern of the campaign yet inevitable with their participation in such a program. Her article provides actual proof for the theoretical arguments presented in this paper.

Farzana Shain (2013) criticises the problems inherent with the inclusion of women’s empowerment with ‘smart economics’. She questions the uneven development in such a neoliberal context. Her article problematises the construction of a colonial girl as sexually and culturally constrained is reimagined as having investment potential.

Hickel (2014) argues that the girl effect videos place the blame for underdevelopment on existing kinship bonds and calls for change into ‘western’ style values of individuality and emphasis on formal education. His arguments will be used to discern the dangers of scrubbing out pre-existing cultural heterogeneity and replacing it with ideas of the ‘ideal’ girl.

This paper synthesises arguments made by the aforementioned researchers amongst others to fully understand the multifaceted dimensions of the videos.


Critical Discourse Analysis analyses social problems (Fairclough, 2003). CDA takes a transdisciplinary approach to analysing its data. This paper, as mentioned earlier, draws from development, feminist and cross cultural discourses.

According to Fairclough (2016) the first step in undertaking a CDA research is focusing on a social problem in its semiotic aspects as present in the data. Second, identifying the obstacles to addressing that social wrong by looking at dialectical relations between semiosis and other social elements. At this stage, the research should also carry out an interdiscursive and linguistic analysis of the social event. Third, considering whether the social order ‘needs’ the social wrong and fourth, identifying possible ways past obstacles. Here, the research looks at the ways in which “dominant discourse is reacted to, contested, criticised and opposed…in its construal of social identities and so forth” (Fairclough, 2016).

Fairclough (2003) emphasises on grammatical and semantic analysis of social events. In CDA, social problems are studied through social events. These social events are generally text based however, they can also be expressed through either linguistic or non – linguistic action. A social event can be caused by social agents or social structures and practices. These social agents refer to the people involved in the social event. They are not free agents. Though they are socially constrained, their actions are not totally socially determined. These social agents have the power to make social events sites of resistance and compliance at the same time.

The social events that this paper analyses are the two videos ‘the girl effect’ and ‘the clock is ticking’. This paper will attempt to analyse both linguistic actions as represented by text and, non – linguistic action as represented by the illustrations in the videos. To understand these social events, we need to understand the social structures and practices in place that necessitate it. This paper will do so by analysing the various discourses that the videos draw from to further their ideology.

The social problem identified in this data is poverty. Nike, the social agent, has chosen to go about operationalising this goal by presenting girls as agents of social change, of development.

According to Fairclough (2003), a CDA study looks at themes of governance in capitalist societies, blurring of social boundaries, globalisation, hegemonic struggles for giving ‘universal’ status to particular representation, legitimising social action and order, and representation of character ‘types’ in contemporary society. These themes will be located in the analysis of the videos .

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This paper will use screenshots and quotations from the videos to showcase theories from different fields to co – construct a transdisciplinary research. These objects of research work as ‘points of entry’ into different discourses.


In this section, data in the form of screenshots and quotations from the two videos will be presented and discussed. This paper has two related sub questions that attempt to answer an overarching research question. The two sub questions that this section attempts to answer are:

How the assumptions and stereotypes about girls living in poverty represent the hierarchies that exist between the global north and the global south will be explored in this section. A semantic and linguistic analysis that is interdiscursive has been undertaken to accomplish that.

In ‘the girl effect’ video, social issues that are addressed are presented in the following order – poverty, AIDS, hunger and, war. Although these are distinct issues, and in the first 10 seconds of the video, it seems as if all these issues would be addressed, the campaign cleverly creates a genre chain on the basis of the assumption that AIDS, hunger and war are all issues that emerge from poverty. This claim is supported a few seconds later when the video dramatically shows husband, hunger, baby and HIV as a burden pushing the girl around. The other issues are all represented as being the effect of poverty. It is on the basis of this ‘logical’ implication, with poverty as the main ‘evil’ and the poor girl the ‘victim’, that the narrative of the campaign is built on.

‘Imagine her’

‘The girl effect’ video asks its audience to imagine a girl living in poverty. The ‘No. Go ahead. Really imagine her’ that follows works to emphasise the otherness of this poor girl who is to be imagined. The video holds the presupposition of who the audience is: literate, English speaking viewer from a ‘developed’ country, rather, the global north. The scene is set with the viewer as an outsider who is personally unaffected and has no real exposure to poverty. This observer is helped to be able to imagine a life of poverty for this poor girl in the global south because she is so far removed from their own lives. It assumes this inherent difference between the viewer and the ones affected. The images used to ‘help’ along this imagination reinforces power and ‘difference’ between the viewer and the poor girl. The viewer joins the narrative by choice since it is not their own reality being depicted.

The images used make evident the fact that it is not a poor girl from the global north that is being talked about. Most descriptive is the ‘flies’ buzzing around the girl. It brings to mind a hot, dirty place, where there are unhygienic living conditions. That combined with the message of forced child marriages and hunger constructs an image of a poor girl from the global south in the mind of the viewer. In doing so, ‘oppositional girlhoods’ are constructed. This notion relates to presenting girls as existing in binaries of those from the global north and south (Bent, 2013). This essentialist construction of their identity homogenises all the girls in the global south and presents girls of the global south as ‘opposites’ or dichotomous.

These images create the illusion that the issues of HIV, child marriage and teen pregnancies only plague the poor girls from the global south and do not exist in the global north (Bent, 2013). Their imagination of a poor girl suffers from the oft repeated representations of them as living in unhygienic conditions, being forced into child marriages, becoming pregnant at a young age, forced into sex work and contracting HIV. They emphasise the abject misery and helplessness of her situation. This depiction is so often repeated that it has become normalised.

Such a representation runs the risk of faulty assumptions that all poor girls are from the global south and all girls in the global south are poor. Since this ‘girl’ has no other identifiers, she must be imagined in association with ‘husband’, ‘baby’, ‘hunger’ and ‘HIV’ (Switzer, 2013). This is evidenced when the video later says ‘600 million girls in the developing world’. It does not specify the number of girls living in poverty. UN Women ( clearly state that out of the 767 million people living under the poverty line in 2013, there is no way to tell how many of them are women or girls since there is no “there has been no credible global estimates of the number of people living in extreme poverty disaggregated by sex”. The factsheet by UNICEF that presents the statistic only say that there are 600 million girls in the developing world, but by incorporating that fact in the video, the campaign implies that each of those 600 million girls are their focus group. If so, it begs the question: then are all those 600 million girls poor?

This homogenised identity of girls living in the global south reduces particulars to universals. By not giving the girl in the video any identifiers, she stands in for every girl. The avoidance of structural differences between the 600 million girls makes their representation essentiaist in nature.

The global south is also imagined as lacking development. A lack of access to education, healthcare facilities and employment for girls living in poverty are implied through the videos. In turn, the girl effect presents its own narrative for development and structural adjustment, one that is interventionist in order to induce this cycle of ‘progress’ and ‘betterment’ (Hickel, 2014).

‘Save’ her

‘The clock is ticking’ video illuminates for the audience what the ‘danger’ and ‘risk’ associated with girls living in poverty in the global south are. It outlines the dangers a 12 year old living in poverty faces from then on for the rest of her life. These dangers include her facing ‘the reality of being married by the age of 14, pregnant by the time she is 15, and if she survives childbirth, she might have to sell her body to support her family which puts her at risk for contracting and spreading HIV. Not the life you imagined for a 12 year old. Right?’ This prediction of her life presents a very bleak and hopeless situation from which the girl is unable to escape from. As the video states ‘her future is out of her control’: supported by the image of her life spiralling out.

A sense of ‘otherness’ is felt when the video says ‘in the eyes of many she’s a woman now. No, really she is.’ The video feels the need to convince the audience, reiterate it to them because it is not the norm for them. The customs and traditions of the global south are presented as being a negative that the proposed solution will correct. The move to challenge existing social structures in the form of kinship bonds that Hickel (2014) mentions, is seen here. By placing these risks firmly in the scope for the poor girl from the global south, it precludes that such issues do not exist in the global north.

The creeping black hands that turn red are a macabre representation of the societal evils present in poor girl’s life. They are hands that she needs to run away from: danger. They are the pictorial depiction of the dangers of living in the global south. They represent already existing social structures and traditional kinship bonds; all of which the girl must run away from and not face head – on. By not showing these hands cut off or stopped in some way, the lack of structural adjustment is made obvious. The only part of the structure that is being observed is taking the girl out of it, to be moulded into the ideal representation of a 12 year old as understood by the campaign.

On the background of this site of power, the poor girl is shown as having no sites of resistance. Her identity is constructed as limiting to her circumstances. On her own, she has no recourse, only with the help from the campaign does she stand a chance because as proclaimed in ‘the girl effect’ video: the government, education and money are not the solution. The avenues available to her depicted as being insufficient to meet her ‘needs’.

The theory on the ‘anti- poverty approach to women’ “sees women’s poverty as the consequence of underdevelopment rather than of subordination” (Jackson, 1998, pp. 40). This theory becomes relevant when we realise that the girl effect campaign ignores structural inequalities inherent in the lives of poor girls. We can draw a parallel from what Siddiqi (2009) calls a ‘culture of global moralism’ surrounding ‘third world [women] workers’ to the imagination of the poor girl from the global south as needing ‘saving’. Interventionist neoliberal policies such as are often based on notions of individual rights from a ‘western’ or leftist tradition of feminism and ignore tensions that exist between ‘local’ and ‘global’ feminist viewpoints (Siddiqi, 2009; Mohanty, 2003).

These videos serve as an appeal to both rational and moral conscience of the viewers and to do so, employ troubling oversimplifications on the path to a ‘better world’. Only certain power relations are identified as being causes for the lack of development of the poor girl. Structural inequalities inherent in their situation is ignored such as talking about why the poor girl wasn’t in school already thereby bringing to light gender difference in school going children. These kinds of depictions induce ethical obligations among viewers to ‘save’ the girls living in poverty (Siddiqi, 2009).

Solution? – Not the government!

‘The girl effect’ video shows that the government, education, money and internet are not the solution to eradicating poverty. The avenues available for girls living in poverty are not enough to meet their needs.

The socio political leanings of the campaign are made relevant through intertextuality in these videos when referring to the UN Millennium Development Goals Factsheet for gender equality. The factsheet presents 3 main aims – promoting education, employment outside of agriculture and role in local governance ( These 3 facts are represented in the same order in the videos.

The girl gets sent to school, buys a cow and earns enough from it to start a business which allows her to bring clear water to the village. Her doing so would impress the men enough for her to get invited to the village council.

The video states that the solution to poverty is not the government. By doing so, on one hand, the campaign reduces the importance of the role the government plays in leading social change. On the other, it emphasises the capability of economic independence to further social change. Such a strategy betrays the neoliberal ideology of the organization. The aim of this campaign is not social change, not women’s empowerment, but a better economy which leads to a better world. ‘which means the economy of the country improves and the whole world is better off’

Yes, it is achieved through the economization of girls but to be able to do so, factors that hamper this like child marriage, teen pregnancies, illness need to be dealt with so that the girl becomes ‘productive’. As Bent (2013) argues, this brings their political subjectivity and agency into question since this representation of empowerment of poor girls in the media is intricately tied to neoliberalism. According to the campaign, existing social structures, kinship bonds and traditions need to be changed to suit this agenda (Hickel, 2014). The result is a neo- colonial campaign focused on ‘civilising’ the ‘other’ to make the global south useful to the global north (Bent, 2013; Shain, 2013; Hickel, 2014).


Over the course of this paper, we have attempted to analyse the videos according to the methodology of Critical Discourse Analysis proposed by Fairclough. We have attempted to find the different themes that he points out as important to a CDA study such as governance …

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