In a world where buzzwords and catchphrases dominate our daily conversations, few words have gained as much popularity and widespread usage as “empowerment.”
With its promise of strength, autonomy, and liberation, empowerment has become a rallying cry in various situations from marketing campaigns to social movements.
Yet, amidst the constant repetition it is crucial to pause and reflect on whether the word still holds the weight and meaning it once did.
Has empowerment become an overused and manipulated term? And if so, what are the consequences of this linguistic inflation?
Let’s discuss the nuances of empowerment, examine its rise, talk about the power of language and its exploitation as a marketing tool, and the role that manipulative language holds within social movements. By questioning the integrity of this once profound concept, we want to reclaim its true definition and inspire a more thoughtful approach to its usage.
The Origins of Empowerment
It’s important to fully understand the origin of the word empowerment before we begin to discuss how the usage of it has gone awry, especially in recent years.
According to Vocabulary.com (2023), the word empowerment is defined as “the act of conferring legality or sanction or formal warrant (authorization) and/or the process of gaining confidence, strength, and the capacity for self-determination”.
The rise of the term began as early as the 50s and 60s for political and social justice movements such as civil rights (Vocabulary, 2023). It continued to be a term that was primarily focused within social justice across the globe with gender equality issues and most recently, within the LGBTQ+ community.
In addition, the rise of self-help literature has also contributed to an increase in the term empowerment: from 2013 to 2019, self-help book sales in the United States increased by 11 percent, reaching 18.6 million volumes. Over the same period, the number of self-help titles nearly doubled, rising from 30,897 to 85,253 (Tagari, 2022).
Once empowerment became a standard household term for strength, confidence, and self-determination, marketing agencies everywhere had a chance to jump on a new opportunity.
The term “Empowerment Marketing” was born, and in 2012 Jonah Sachs (owner of Free-Range Studios, a marketing agency and advisor to Fortune 500 companies) claimed it was the next big marketing strategy (InSegment, n.d.). Boy, was he right!
Empowerment marketing consists of creating feelings within the consumer that doesn’t necessarily directly correlate with the product being sold; rather, it is a marketing strategy that creates a stronger, more confident consumer that is resistant to negativity. This strategy portrays a consumer who can accomplish anything, and therefore (if they desire) can purchase that product on their own volition absent of typical consumer behavior pressures because they are “empowered” to do so.
This style of marketing has replaced inadequacy marketing, where consumers are made to feel that they will be completely void if they don’t have a specific product or service. By capitalizing on the positive and drawing attention to the individualized power each one of us holds over making decisions, marketing agencies have managed to flip the message on its head while utilizing simple semantics to bring consumers closer to purchase.
It’s easy to see how groups and movements around the world have used the power of language to manipulate individuals. But how can we decipher what is real and what is manipulation?
The Power of Language
“Languages do not limit our ability to perceive the world or to think about the world, but they focus our perception, attention, and thought on specific aspects of the world”. – Antonio Benítez-Burraco Ph.D.
Through the power of words, we can purposefully direct attention to specific ideas, issues, or perspectives, ultimately changing how people perceive and understand the world around them. Think about our discussion on empowerment marketing: companies can manipulate words to make a product or service appear one way while evoking reactions in a completely different context. Language acts as a catalyst for attentional shifts by framing information in particular ways, highlighting certain aspects while downplaying others depending on the goal.
By carefully choosing our words, we can draw attention to crucial details or challenge prevailing narratives, thereby altering the focus and perception of individuals or even an entire group. Language can serve as a tool for advocacy, marketing, raising awareness, and promoting change to mention a few.
Because of the multi-faceted use of language, the term empowerment has managed to find its way into every scenario. It is used in everything from casual marketing ploys to vital political campaigns and social justice awareness. Herein lies the problem…
…”buzzwords” like empowerment can quickly lose their strength when a market is inundated with them. Overuse of any term can dilute its meaning and turn it from a powerful linguistic tool to empty rhetoric.
This is why we must be so careful with our words, and truly think when we’re using communication terms that may be popular. It is crucial to consider whether our intentions are effectively reaching and resonating with the specific group we are targeting or if they are merely passing by without recognition. By carefully selecting our words and tailoring our messages, we can ensure that our desired audience becomes fully engaged and attentive to the ideas, issues, or perspectives we wish to convey.
Whether it’s through persuasive rhetoric, storytelling, or inclusive communication, language wields the power to transform attention and reshape perceptions, opening new possibilities for understanding.
The Importance of Authentic Empowerment
In over three decades of teaching martial arts, I have encountered hundreds if not thousands of students who have found empowerment through training.
Women who have suffered through domestic issues and/or a threat of violence are often broken down, stuck in a place where self-esteem and confidence seem to be a forgotten concept. They have felt inferior, frightened even … and after several training sessions have begun to find their strength through knowledge in a newfound skill that not only teaches self-defense but also encourages a myriad of personal growth milestones.
I’ve also seen teenagers who feel isolated because of their perceived differences or maybe because they are victims of bullies. They are also able to gain empowerment and confidence through the acquisition of a skill such as martial arts.
The word empowerment may have become diluted with overuse, but it is possible to reclaim the original meaning through the true empowerment of individuals.
We all have a part in paying closer attention to how we formulate our communication.
Authentic empowerment consists of a journey of personal growth. It represents a process where an individual can seek fulfillment within themselves and begins with a deep commitment to self-discovery, self-reflection, and self-awareness.
By engaging in practices such as introspection, mindfulness, and continuous learning, individuals can gain valuable insights into their values, strengths, and limitations. Through this process, they develop a sense of autonomy, realizing that they have the power to shape their own lives and make conscious choices aligned with their true selves.
Personal growth involves embracing challenges and stepping out of comfort zones, as it is through these experiences that you cultivate resilience, confidence, and a broader perspective. It also requires nurturing supportive relationships and seeking guidance from mentors or coaches who can provide encouragement along the way.
Seeking authentic empowerment is a comprehensive process to build your strengths and confidence into positive results in your life and in the lives of those around you. It is more than a lyric in a pop song, or a feeling you’re supposed to get by wearing a certain brand of makeup. It is an all-encompassing reality that will open doors and enlighten your actions.
The overuse and manipulation of the term “empowerment” confronts us with the sobering realization that a word with such noble intentions can be easily diluted and exploited. The rise of empowerment as a popular catchphrase has led to its overuse by marketers, derailing its significance and turning it into empty rhetoric. In addition, its misuse in social movements has eroded its credibility and made us question the authenticity of its claims.
However, amidst this sea of misappropriation, we find a glimmer of hope. By recognizing the power of language and the potential for manipulation, we can reclaim and preserve the true essence of the term. It is necessary that we cultivate a discerning and critical approach to language, separating genuine empowerment from mere manipulation tactics. True empowerment lies not in external validation or hollow promises but in the pursuit of personal growth, self-determination, and the liberation of others.
By using the term responsibly, we can seek authentic experiences of empowerment that embody its core values, which will ensure its continued relevance and impact. We can restore its integrity and inspire people to pursue meaningful change where empowerment is more than just a hollow word.
InSegment. (n.d.). The Era of Empowerment Marketing. Retrieved from https://www.insegment.com/blog/era-empowerment-marketing/
Tagari. (2022). The History of Self-Help Books. Retrieved from https://www.tagari.com/how-many-self-help-books-have-been-published/
Vocabulary.com. (2023). Definition of Empowerment. Retrieved from https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/empowerment