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Feminspire | April 20, 2014

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Sexism Consumes the World of Advertising

Sexism Consumes the World of Advertising

Adverts. Something we all try to avoid in life, but inevitably fail at. And sure, you can ignore them, claim they don’t effect you, but the fact is that they exist, and they’re EVERYWHERE. And now they’re in this article, too.

Adverts telling us to look younger, be skinnier, have shinier hair, have less hair in other places, cook more for our families, clean more, smell nicer, it never ends – but between all this advert watching where can I possibly find the time to do all of that?

Personally, I do love a good ad. I think they can be funny, clever and downright amazing (see Ikea, Lurpak, Sony, etc.). But then, you do have to sit through a fair share of awful ones too. It’s a mass media phenomenon that infiltrates our daily lives while we’re not even paying attention, and they scream out a lot of sexist epithets underneath all that BUY, BUY, BUY. 

There are far too many adverts selling anything to do with food or kitchens or cleaning that only star women in domestic scenarios. Sure, they’re not as blindingly sexist as some of the other ads that make their case by blatantly objectifying women, but it’s as though advertising is literally shouting at us to get back in the kitchen love, and make me and sandwich. Hello gender stereotype alert!

Take this seemingly harmless (if horrifically unfunny) advert:

Two old ladies shocked at the fact that a mother (note: not the father; remember, men are incapable of cooking in the world of Mr. Advertising Man) is able to juggle a job AND still put dinner on the table for the kids. Well, newsflash, they do it all the time, and they probably don’t need your little Yorkshire puddings to manage it either.

And here, we get it again; the woman confined to the trappings of domesticity:

The woman is always the one posing next to the new Dyson, or doing the laundry and saving the planet by washing at 30°. Of course, the knight HAS to be a woman, because a man would NEVER succeed at cleaning anything. Ahahaha, a MAN cleaning, what a joke ahahaha. Oh no wait…

This all just adds up to a big pile of awful that culminates in such wonders as LAD Bible and endless ‘jokes‘ about how we belong in kitchens.

But for now, let’s look at this:

It’s like “SEX. LOOK AT ME. HEY OVER HERE: SEX! Right, now that I have your attention…”

Having suffered through many a Ryanair flight, I can categorically say that their staff is not made up of bikini clad models and, in reality, they bear more resemblance to slightly irate air stewards trying to sell extortionately priced food. And, if you look closely (try not to be distracted by her perky boobs and all the SEX), it almost appears as if they’re trying to sell this lovely lady for the very reasonable price of £9.99. And that’s what they call prostitution.  As well as false advertising.

Advertisers using a woman’s body to flog an irrelevant product. That is sexist, and quite patronising to us as an audience. Surely advertisers realise that their target market is a bit more intelligent than that, even the horny men.

Now, let’s take a little look at Lynx, a repeat offender on the sexploitation front.

This piece of televisual delight seems to imply that all women need is a man with dandruff free hair. Well, no. I can’t really say that the first thing I do when checking out a guy is examine his hair for dandruff, but then that’s just me.

Lynx seem to be under the illusion that sexy women are attracted to any man who smells nice and synthetic. It has probably deluded a generation of young men into thinking that all they need to do to attain a gorgeous girlfriend is give themselves a thorough spritz of Lynx in the morning. And that, my friend, is brilliant marketing. So brilliant that Specsavers parodied a popular Lynx advert which showed thousands of women running towards a man spraying Lynx on himself with this slightly more intelligent but still sexist version:

Glasses – nothing inherently sexy about glasses, and that comes from someone who wears them. Sexy women in bikinis do not hide that matter.

But they’re not the only culprits, oh no. I’m sure you’ve all seen the men’s care ads with the man in the shower or having a shave or whatever and then oh, look! He has a stunning girlfriend as well, how nice for him. Couldn’t have an advert for male grooming without a ridiculously beautiful girl in it as well, oh no.

These are just as damaging to men as they are to women; the poor guy who discovers that his shiny new Gillette razor doesn’t come with a beautiful model and goes home to cry himself to sleep in a little ball. Aw.

A here’s another classic example of female objectification to choke down:

A woman as a car; so frightfully original Mr. Advertising Man. For starters, you can’t own a woman anymore, it’s the 21st century pal, and we don’t react kindly to being bought. Second, we don’t immediately begin flirting with the first man who eyes us up, and neither do cars. At points, it borders on soft porn. I think we should all scroll down a bit to watch that Sure ad quickly in order to wash the bad taste that left in our mouths.

Now let’s turn our heads to the opposite side of the spectrum; the side that makes money from being directly anti-sexist. The Dove ‘Real Beauty’ campaign hit our screens and billboards a while back and is still emanating an aura of goodness out into the world, as one of the first marketing schemes to create a positive image of normal women.

OMG LOOK AT IT! YAY! Aside from the obviously problematic phrase “real women,” this was a huge step forward in advertising. EVERY woman is a real woman regardless of any other characteristic. This campaign was a big deal because women who looked like this hadn’t been featured in beauty advertisements before. Dove’s campaign was both hugely successful and heartwarming.

Then this came on my tellybox:

Women being, well, women. Nothing particularly special about that, except it has hardly been seen before. The ‘Strong Woman’ is a mythical image that, tragically, rarely graces our TV screens. But if you read the comments to that video (some of which give me the rage tingles), people just don’t seem to like it, and so now we’re back to the overly flowery, pink and girly adverts trying to sell us something that probably won’t work to solve a problem that we didn’t even know we had. Shame.

Adverts are presenting an image of us as idiotic, unbelievably beautiful, bloated, hairy, smelly, cleaning/cooking machines who are good for nothing else but being a mother and caressing a man’s newly shaved face. And that just ain’t true now.

Finally, this: a piece of comedy genius that sums up everything I’ve just spent a day writing in 58 seconds. There was basically no point in me even writing it at all. Enjoy.

Written by Chiara Milford

  • Karoline

    Are there not laws against sexist ads in the US?

    • Rhiannon Payne


      • Karoline

        whoa, that is really terrible. i’m so thankful we have that here.

        • Abigail Lewis

          Karoline where are you? All of these ads are from the UK.

          • Karoline

            I’m in Norway. We were actually talking about sexist advertising in my Marketing Law class earlier this week.

          • Abigail Lewis

            Ahh that makes sense, Scandinavia as always been so far ahead in terms of women’s rights!

          • Lauren Slavin

            brb moving to Norway

  • Michael Kurland

    You’re going a bit overboard in your interpretations. Take the Fiat ad for example – if you watch it you will note that the woman completely dominates the poor guy, and the idea of owning her is ridiculous.

    • Alisse Marie

      You do not get to tell someone what they can and cannot be offended by.

    • Abigail Lewis

      Does it matter? A car – which is a possession – is represented here as a woman. I could equally say that a man’s life is totally dominated by his car – but he still OWNS it.

    • Abigail Lewis

      Furthermore, the trope of ‘woman as dominatrix’ is overplayed to the extent that women with dominating personalities are sexualised thereby not taken seriously AND women who get turned on by being dominating in bed are disapproved of unless they look a certain way – like the model in the Fiat video. I’m trying to convey to you all the things that make me feel uncomfortable, objectified and dehumanised when I see adverts like this – which is every time I turn on the television. Surely you can’t deny, from your own experience of watching adverts, that men tend to shave and drink beer while women are bloated/itchy/hairy/cleaning/cooking/mothers/ill.

  • Jenny K.

    Question to consider: Do ads drive societal constructs and culture or do they emulate it? Which came first – the chicken or the egg?

    • Sully

      One of my favorite books is “Mad Women” by Jane Maas about her experience being a woman in advertising in the 60s and 70s, and one of the most striking parts of the book for me was her saying that advertising isn’t a driver of social change, just a mirror, and shouldn’t be expected to try to rectify sexism. I know that the main point of advertising is selling products, but as someone in the marketing industry it makes me sad to think that there are no qualms about the way we portray gender in advertising.

  • Anon
    Note: both these ads are currently airing in the UK.

    Also, I know the EU rules have changed for this but there were a whole series of these ads that were shamelessly using a crude stereotype of men to sell car insurance to women:

    I don’t disagree with your message. In fact I agree with the title of the article, “Sexism consumes the world of advertising.” Your article, however, completely neglects that stereotyping within advertising is a multilateral affair. Far from portraying men as ‘already brilliant’, they are often portrayed as little more than drooling, lascivious carnivores incapable of higher cognitive function when presented with something as trivial as beer or an attractive female. This advert for Heineken, while extremely funny, exemplifies this point:

    In fact, I suspect that the ‘You’re already brilliant’ tagline adopted by Mitchell and Webb in what you rightly point out is both a hilarious and strikingly insightful sketch was actually a well-crafted piece of satire in itself. In suggesting that men don’t need anything more than to drink beer and be clean-shaven to be perfect, the implication is that a man should not lower himself to the banalities of critical thought or reflection; in essence it encourages a view both among men and of men as being not only incapable of anything more than the sort of boorish behaviour depicted in beer adverts, but also that anything more than this is undesirable for a man, and that any man who wants a life consisting of more than this is not ‘normal’. When taken in this light, ‘you’re already brilliant’ becomes less a motto of how advertising is inexorably skewed in favour of masculinity, but a demonstration of how adverts can also be patronising and degrading for men by providing a distorted view of what masculinity actually is.

    I agree with this article in that the sexism portrayed in adverts is certainly a bigger problem for women than men (even as I was searching for videos to use as examples it struck me just how many advertisements fit the description of sexism you give), but I cannot abide by your argument that advertising works in favour of men. Advertisements rely on stereotypes, and stereotypes work both ways. As for a solution to this problem, I don’t think there is an easy one. Perhaps we should not look to regulating advertisement as a solution, but more to the ideas and prejudices in which the sexism found in advertising takes its roots.

    • Chiara

      Honestly, I couldn’t agree more. I actually think that the Lynx-style adverts are tremendously insulting to men as well, to some degree, although they are quite obviously tongue in cheek.

      This is a purely feminist website though, and so I was only looking at adverts predominantly from an angry feminist perspective. Sexism works both ways, it’s true, but in a world where the power brokers (and probably the advertisers responsible for many of the above atrocities) are male, it’s the female point of view that gets neglected more often than not.

      Adverts are problematic for anyone who doesn’t fit into the advertisers neatly labelled stereotype of your demographic (which is most humans), but that’s just how they sell things. I’m not entirely sure I would be for stricter regulation of the advertising industry on sexist grounds though; I’m more of an advocate for freedom in such areas, even if it is harmful. I just wanted to increase awareness of how sexism permeates so many aspects of media because if we’re all made aware of it, then it makes it slightly less of a problem and more like something we can laugh at.

      Thanks so much for the comment by the way, you should write your own article!

  • Alysa E Friesen

    I heard that the ‘Real Beauty’ campaign was unsuccessful, in terms of sales. While it was going on, sales on these beauty products went down, and that’s why they don’t have it on tv anymore (from what I’ve heard.. if people have seen it lately, then I’m glad what I’ve heard is wrong.)
    Also it’s kind of ironic that Dove, of the ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, is owned by Unilever, which is the largest manufacturer of whitening/lightening “beauty” products.

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  • Lesley Wells

    I stood looking at the advertising covering the outside of large lift doors in my local Ikea today. On one side was the boys bedroom: train set – board game – dinosaurs – books on dinosaurs – toy sword – hero outfit hanging on wall and not one, but TWO kingly crowns. On the girl’s side: lots of pink things, dolls, and in the same location as the boy’s dinosaurs: toy kitchen equipment, plates, cups and glasses (including wine glasses!) and hanging on the wall a fairy costume. No crowns of course. I’m now a grandmother, but I know that as a girl I would have loathed the girl’s bedroom and only wanted the more interesting and exciting boy’s provision (not sure about the crowns though). I may be an old cynic but I feel that all the effort my generation made to eliminate sexism is completely and blatantly ignored by the corporates, whose only interest is an ever increasing income at the cost of our social health and development. Ikea are not the only culprits in this – but they are certainly guilty and wilfully old fashioned in their sexist advertising.

  • Matthew Vella

    Wait a minute, that last one is meant to be knowingly sexist. Its humorous because of how sexist and ridiculous is it.

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  • Corinna

    Hey, I am doing a research on sexism in advertising! Would be great if some people followed this link to fill out this survey! Thanks!

  • r rr

    I agree that sexism is widespread in adverts.
    But you essentially only talk about the women. What about the men? The every one where the men have massive six packs and abs.
    Coca cola advert where the girls get the man’s shirt dirty (while he’s mowing the lawn- of course) and he then takes t off to reveal a “manly” body.
    Or the minstrels advert where the girls go to a male strip show?
    As if women are always the ones who are victims of some media campaign.

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