Humans. We’ve come a long way. Four major countries (at least) have promised to give up petrol-based vehicles by 2050, we can video call each other anywhere in the world, and scientists are manipulating DNA to remove disease from the body.
This is progress. We are living in a generous time, where we have more knowledge than ever before.
The downside of the global and technological advances is all the misinformation that we are also exposed to on a daily basis. Specifically in advertising: a business of manipulation and stereotypes. The point of advertising is to convince us that a product is too incredible not to have in our life, even if that means outright lying. Cigarettes turned out to not be healthy. Subway footlongs aren’t actually a foot long; that’s the name of the sandwich, not the size. Coca-Cola, in a bold move, claimed their drinks had no effect on weight gain or tooth loss, but like Icarus, they flew too close to the sun. They were sued.
Women in particular have had a raw deal in the world of advertising, branded as housewives for fifty of the past hundred years, and the rest as sexual eye candy. For some reason, even though most people in the world have a mother, partner or daughter, sexist advertisements were (and in some cases still are) socially acceptable. The women we loved grew up being repeatedly exposed to demoralizing clichés and these very clichés became a part of their identity—accumulation theory in action.
Still, in recent years, these oppressive representations of women have had push back. In 2017 the U.K Advertising Standards Authority decided it would crack down on ads that promote gender stereotyping, and stop them altogether by 2018. Unilever, a billion dollar transnational company that owns many products we either use or have at least heard of, met with representatives from Facebook, Microsoft, Google and UN Women to discuss eliminating gender stereotyping in advertising.
While we are making headway, we still have a long way to go. Here, we present a barebones visual history of sexism in advertising.
The 1800s to mid 1900s: the years of the housewives
Ad copy: "Fourteen-hour wives of eight hour men need gold dust washing powder to enable them to get through work as early as their husbands [...]."
Advertiser: N. K. Fairbank & Co | Soap Manufacturer, 1889-1830
In the late 1800s, ten to twelve years (depending on the country) before women gained the right to vote, the ‘housewife’ stereotype comes to prominence. A woman’s role is to accommodate, cook, clean, and look as pretty as possible—at all times.
This advertisement for Gold Dust Washing Powder, sexist as it may be, at least acknowledges the fact that the women of the day may have been working harder than their male counterparts.
The early 1940s: war propaganda
Ad copy: “The girl he left behind is still behind him. She’s a wow.”
Advertiser: American Government Organisation
Between 1939 and 1943, the government's agenda is clear: men have to go to war and women have to step into their roles—due only to necessity.
This advertisement is clever in its approach and pulls on the heart-strings—every lady wants to be the ‘wow’ girl for her man. And now is the best time to shine and really show her man he’s got the right lady.
During this period, brands begin diversifying the role of a female as well, with companies like Eureka showing three women in its vacuum cleaner ads: the military woman, the factory woman and the stereotypical housewife. Thus, Pre World War II marks one of the biggest turning points in terms of a woman’s place in society.
The mid 1940s: capitalising on women’s insecurities
Ad copy: "Beautiful but dumb. She has never learned the first rule of lasting charm. [...] The world—and any eligible bachelor in it—could be hers. But they’re not! And all because it has never dawned on her that she needs a long-lasting perspiration check. To stay appealing and dainty every girl needs a long-lasting deodorant. [...] Proof that you perspire: If you think you don’t perspire enough to matter, just smell the armhole of the dress you are wearing when you take it off tonight. It won’t hesitate to tell you that you’re no exception to the rule! You’ll know at last why romance is passing you by!"
Advertiser: Odor-o-no | Deodorant Company, 1910-1960
The war comes to an end in 1945, men come back home, many women go back to their traditional roles and advertising starts getting mean and manipulative. It begins aggressively targeting feminine hygiene, capitalising on the insecurity that can come with bodily functions. Many advertisements of this time threatened that should a woman not appear perfect, no man would want her. This received backlash, but not as much as it did success. This ad raised the deodorant company’s yearly profit margin by over 100%
The 1950s: even a woman can use it
Ad copy: "For six months I bend the ears of the home office to get a postage meter. I win . . . Then the only good, fast, dependable, honest-to-Gregg stenographer I got, this redhead Morissey, balks at a postage meter! 'I have no mechanical aptitude. Machines mix me up, kind of,' she says. As if we asked her to fly a P-80. I almost blow my top. […] I try diplomacy, “Miss Morissey, I want you person’lly to try it for two weeks. If you don’t like it then—back it goes to the factory! I depend on your judgment implicitly. Okay?' . . . She acts like an early Christian about to be lunch for a lion, but gives in. So help me—two weeks later she has a big pink bow on the handle of the postage meter—like it was an orchid or something. I give it the gape. 'Kinda cute, ain’t it,' says Miss Morissey. 'But a very efficient machine, Mr Jones. Now the mail is out early enough so I get to the girls’ room in time to hear all the dirt' . . . I wonder is it always illegal to kill a woman!"
Advertiser: Pitney Bowes | Global Technology Company
The ’50s presents a horrendous amount of sexist advertising, a lot of which continues pushing traditional roles and manipulates women into going back home to their ‘real jobs’ now that the war is over. There is also a rise in advertising that encourages wife beating. However, this is also a period where many women choose to join the workforce more permanently and are frequently seen in more subservient positions within the administration field. Advertisers jump on this opportunity and find new ways in which to sell goods and services.
This advertisement in particular, exemplifies the views at that time that women are fish out of water when it comes to technology and uses this ‘apparent’ understanding of the way a woman’s mind works to create empathy with its target audience: male bosses with female airhead secretaries. A solution is presented in the form of the Pitney Bowes Postage Meter, which is so easy to use that even a woman with no ‘mechanical aptitude’ can work it. Icing on the cake, due to its efficiency, the woman is now able to spend extra time gossiping with her friends—because of course, that’s what she does best in her spare time. Which is also reason enough to want to kill her.
The 1960s: just shed some tears to get your way
Ad copy: “WIVES. Look this ad over carefully. Circle the items you want for Christmas. Show it to your husband. If he does not go to the store immediately, cry a little. Not a lot. Just a little. He’ll go, he’ll go. Husbands: Look this ad over carefully. Pick out what your wife wants. Go buy it. Before she starts to cry."
Advertiser: Dormeyer | Appliances Manufacturer, 1900-1962
Nothing says quality appliances like this advert from Dormeyer. And it does, right there, underneath the demeaning advice that if a woman would like some sweet, sweet Dormeyer, all she has to do is find a pencil, circle the object of her desire, and show it to her husband. If that fails, Dormeyer further recommends crying, which should guilt trip him into buying it anyway.
Despite the terrible advertising, the ’60s also brought about positive change, with President John F Kennedy signing the Equal Pay Act, a bill, which was supposed to bring about an end to sex-based wage discrimination.
The 1970s: reasserting a woman's place in society
Ad copy: “Though she was a tiger lady, our hero didn’t have to fire a shot to floor her. After one look at his Mr. Leggs slacks, she was ready to have him walk all over her. That noble styling sure soothes the savage heart! If you’d like your own doll-to-doll carpeting, hunt up a pair of these he-man Mr. Leggs slacks. Such as our new automatic washwear blend […].”
Advertiser: Mr Leggs | Men's Slacks, 1962-1987
At the same time the equal rights amendment is being being passed by congress, advertisements like this are popping up around the world. This Mr Leggs slacks ad tells men all they require is a pair of Mr Leggs trousers to claim their trophy wife. Yes, it certainly is nice to have a trophy that doubles up as a doormat.
This ad is also a reminder of the times, where Creative Directors of ad agencies are reflecting a man’s internal fear: the loss of his masculinity, his power. After all, this period marks the height of second-wave feminism, a time where women are demanding equal pay for equal work, a chance at jobs traditionally reserved for males, and round-the-clock state-supported child-care centers in order to cut the apron strings that bind them to roles behind the kitchen bench.
The 1980s: sex sells and so do women’s bodies
Ad copy: “Premium Catch!"
Advertiser: National Premium Beer | Brewing Company
All right, drop the domestic abuse, and bring in the sex. It’s the ’80s baby; flamboyance and innuendo are here in a big way. People are living hedonistic lives. Women are embracing the liberation that has come from the sexual revolution. Advertising takes a slightly new approach to sexism: traditional roles are mixed with objectification. In other words: same shit, more skin. The mantra of the advertising landscape: “When in doubt, add a scantily clad woman.”
This ad for National Premium Beer, still illustrates the mindset that a woman's sole purpose is to serve and please her man. And the ’80s means it can all be done naked. Perhaps we can give the advertiser credit for being progressive enough to place a woman in the role of a fisherman?
The 1990s: woman vs machine
Ad copy: “The New Game Boy pocket. Seriously distracting.”
Advertiser: Nintendo | Japanese Electronics and Video Game Company
The darker side of Nintendo is activated in bedrooms across the world when a woman is tied up in a sexually suggestive manner and left on the bed while her partner (or captor) ignores her and plays games instead.
Although the intention of this ad was to convey the message that the new Game Boy Pocket was better than a woman and sex, a lot of people believed it was promoting non consensual sex.
Narratives similar to this one began showing up throughout the gaming industry and women were objectified and compared blatantly to, well, just another object.
2000s: food porn
Ad copy: “It'll blow your mind away. BK Super Seven Incher."
Advertiser: Burger King | American Fast Food Restaurant
Burger King ranks fairly high—for most—on the list of things they might not consider erotic. We might have eaten a burger or two, but the odds the act was sexual are slim. But Burger King doesn’t think so because they’re the biggest dicks in town. And we know how much everyone likes a really big dick.
It’s also worth mentioning that the model in this ad didn’t even know her image was being used for burger smut. In 2014, she made a Youtube video explaining how Burger King bought an image of her—posing in profile—from a stock photo site and then added the lewdness we see here. When confronted, BK, like most large businesses, apologised for nothing. Note to self: do not model for stock photos.
Now: surfing is for boys
Advertiser: Billabong | Surf Apparel Retailer
Sexist advertisements continue to exist today but the good news is, a majority of them will feel social backlash like never before. Advertising standards have improved vastly and we are, for the most part, heading in the right direction. Advertisers who choose not to educate themselves will most definitely suffer, much like this ad from Billabong, published in 2017: Divided into men’s/women’s categories, the guy is doing some anti gravity moves with a surfboard—pretty cool. While the girl is lying on the beach in a sultry position. Needless to say, people weren’t happy, and, after receiving strongly worded feedback, Billabong adjusted the ad to also feature a female surfer. And here we were thinking it was the 21st century.