“Advertising is both a creator and a mirror of society”(Kacen and Nelson). Throughout the history of feminism, many political, ethical,global, and philosophical topics have risen for debate. One of the most popularstill to date is the portrayal of women in advertisement, especially howagencies use these images to draw in consumers. Although a myriad of feministefforts have attempted to dispel advertising’s unfavorable gender stereotypes,this dispute is still underdeveloped.
Furthermore, feminist activism hascreated comprehensive positive and negative impressions on advertising,especially in the altering of sexual stereotypes and negative body images forwomen, but lends itself more to failure than success.Feminism, a recently developed term, emerged in the early20th century for the United States. Because white, educated, urban,and middle-class women were the primary buyers for their households, they were thetarget for a majority of advertisements. By appealing to a women’s desires,which at the time included freedom from convention and personal pleasure, adscommonly appropriated feminist rhetoric and practice in non-essential productsto attract these women. Around 1960, feminism reemerged and the second-wavepresented itself.
Viewing advertising as “the primary means by which societypressured women to fit into idealized roles as wives and mothers”, feministgroups sparked a series of protests against large ad companies. As sexualstereotypes in advertising became apparently clear to the public, ads began toreflect the impact of these second-wave demonstrators by portraying women innon-traditional roles; the number of women employed in advertising nearlytripled. However, the success of feminism was not maintained, and the 1980’swere perceived as “a time of backlash against feminism in both politics and themedia”.
Women, portrayed as insecure and dependent on men, no longer held theirpresence in advertising as companies stopped working with feminists (McDonough et al. 558). Thisresentment was viewed as a time of retaliation for many, including the infamousGuerrilla Girls who rented advertising space on New York City’s public buses wheretheir poster’s display caused a stir (Girls and Newton 158). “Bythe 21st century, feminism’s impact on advertising could be felt most insociety’s increased awareness of sexism in advertising, an awareness that was continuallyencouraged by feminist journalists, scholars, activists, and even advertisers.”The success offeminism on advertising has, as mentioned above, had many tremendousimplications. For instance, there are currently many internet sites devoted tothe representation of women, and a large number of international women’sorganizations that continue to “both monitor women’s representation and resistincreasingly global domination by a small number of corporations in which womenhave little to no power” (McDonough et al.
558). In addition, the amount companies invest insocial causes has grown extraordinarily in recent decades. One cause that hasbeen visited by many companies is “femvertising”–the celebration of womenempowerment through advertisements. Some of the most well-known examplesinclude Dove’s “real beauty” campaign, and the Always “like a girl” challenge.High levels of perceived company-cause fit are known to enhance consumerattitude. However, in the case of femvertising, such an association is notalways evident.
Companies as diverse as Verizon, Dodge, and Under Armour havereleased commercials encouraging women to acquire or proudly displaytraditionally masculine traits, such as athleticism, ambition, decisiveness,and courage. A majority of femvertising campaigns also include feminine traits,including “a focus on appearance and nurturing and the construction of theideal androgynous woman: pretty, yet strong; decisive, yet gentle”. Whileandrogynous-woman scripts have been used in advertising as early as the 1970’sand 80’s, this is the first time large corporations have taken an essentiallyactivist, or feminist, position. Some suggest that it is the grassroots natureof social media that helps boost the spread of corporate messages, likefemvertising, that take an activist stance. Conversely, many haveattributed the success of femvertising to the product that is being sold.
“Itis easier for companies that make female-centered products and services toproduce ads that champion women. Thus, male-centered products are not applyingthe same rhetoric to their advertisements, showing little to no growth fromfeminism’s prominence.” Such a theory opens the doors to the critiques and lackof success that feminism has had on the advertising industry.
Abitbol et al.notes that these ads draw attention due to their “insistent requirement forindividual women to overcome their self- doubts”, often with the help of abrand or a product, which is not unlike victim blaming in domestic and sexualviolence cases. The messages often fail to recognize that girls’ and women’sself-doubts are not the result of personal weakness or lack of intelligence.Rather, these doubts reflect long-standing gender hierarchies that praise themnot for their brains, wit, work ethic, athleticism, or resilience, butpredominantly for their appearance. Encouraging women’s individual success,bravery, and progress is admirable, but it also appears hypocritical if thecompanies behind these messages have a sizable gender pay gap, or fail to givea paid maternity leave to their female employees (Abitbol et al. 117-138). In the decades sinceresearchers first began investigating the portrayal of women in advertising,the media has tried to quiet apprehension about negative female representations.
Responding to feminists’ concerns, the media industry “has muted the blatantsimplicity of stereotypical gender images” and there is said to be a widerpalette of roles and images for women in the media. However, researchers haveactually discovered that stereotypical portrayals have continued and evenincreased in the last few years. The Scale for Sexism has been used in amultitude of studies to examine the portrayals of men and women in variouscross-culture media, including television and magazines. Kacen and Nelson usedthis method to extend two previous studies (Pingree et al. 1976 andLazier-Smith 1989) about sexism in socio-cultural magazines.
Their findingssuggest that the gender portrayals in print advertising media remaindisappointingly sexist, stereotypical, and limiting. Consistent with theearlier studies, sexist portrayals of women in advertisements is, on average,the worst in Playboy, followed by Time and Newsweek, and Working Woman. Thelarge number of female ads in the data appear to reflect the current ethos oftoday’s third-wave feminists–women in their 20’s and 30’s, prime targets foradvertisers, who have grown up in feminist environments and don’t subscribe tothe feminist ethos of the 1970’s, women who can “discuss lipstick and liberationin the same breath”. The undesirable consequences of stereotypical advertisingand its detrimental effects upon women’s self-concepts, achievementmotivations, and self-images are widely acknowledged, yet still disregarded byad agencies (Kacen and Nelson). Furthermore, scholarshave observed a long history of feminist messages being appropriated formarketing purposes. Many companies that produce female-empoweringadvertisements, or ‘ad-her-tisements’, have been exploited in their falseactivism by not truly supporting the feminism activist movement, butmanipulating customers for bigger profits.
One of the most famous examples ofthis is Dove, a brand of feminine beauty products that promotes “real beauty”and sells products to make women more beautiful. At the end of theiradvertisement “Patches”, it states, “Beauty is a state of mind”. If such aclaim is true, why would women need to buy any of their beauty products? Thisstatement directly contradicts the products it sells. Dove’s approach, consideredby Baxter as feminist consumerism, encourages women to “channel dissent andpractice self-care by engaging with corporate marketing campaigns andpurchasing beauty products”. By advertising self-acceptance, but at the same timeincreasing sales by promoting the consumption of women’s products thatencourage compliance to the standard beauty ideology for women, Dove’s critiqueof beauty is greatly contradictory. As Baxter states, “The Dove campaign doesnot decenter the role of beauty in women’s lives, but rather suggests thatbeauty and self-acceptance can be accessed through the purchase of Dove beautyproducts; the same is true for the widely known Pantene “shine strong”advertisements.
” By engaging in this trend, ad companies are truly takingadvantage of feminism. Their goal is to make the consumer believe that theircompany is passionate about their cause while not necessarily supporting themessages they publicize.This paradoxicaladvertising is especially apparent when examining the male-targeted ads fromthe same companies.
It is often the case that women in these ads are treated asno more than a prop, and greatly exhibit anti-feminist ideas. Women in themale-targeted advertisements analyzed by Baxter said no more than one sentencein each advertisement. The women were also either scantily dressed in bikinis,presented as a prize in a tight-fitting evening dress, or shown in what iscommonly discussed as one of a man’s favorite outfits, a sundress. The ad’simages of these women portrays the opposite of feminist ideals and contravenestheir sister-company’s push to promote female empowerment. The implications forthis research is that “ad-her-tisement messages do not have a ring of validityto them when the brands send them out to participate in a trend as a tactic toturn a profit” (Baxter).A similar phenomenoncalled ‘ironic sexism’, referring to “having a sense of humor about genderstereotypes”, has also been demonstrated in advertising in the post-second wavefeminist period in U.
S. culture. Advertisements aimed at women communicated ‘ironicsexism’ by allocating a sense of power to the women, sometimes exaggerated andmockingly, in a way that advertisements aimed at men did not. This clear ironyis part of a wider and continuing backlash against feminism, which has pavedthe way for the return of a patriarchal gaze in advertising.
Advertisers thatimplement this sexism advocate for the patriarchal ideologies they reinforce,creating a new trend used to depict images of women.This goes to show that advertising is a dangerous, yet significant by-productof popular culture as it reinforces existing ideologies while creating new ones(Blloshmi). As Bronstein states, media frames, such as advertising, can be apowerful influence in the construction of public opinion (Bronstein 783-803).By using irony in ads to present gender stereotypes, viewers may deem this as acceptable,further suspending feminist efforts. The significance of feminist involvement in ads has, andwill continue to be, a powerful indicator of the United States’ advances towardan equivalent society. Considering that feminist efforts and activism towardsadvertising has produced more negative consequences than positive ones,different approaches or strategies might be useful in gaining greater success forthe future.
Although there have been some advances towards gender equality inthe field of advertisement, this country still has a long way to come.