Changing faces of women in advertising

  • Voices
  • September 19, 2018
  • Georgia Middleton
Changing faces of women in advertising

It’s 2018. That’s 125 years since women in New Zealand have been recognised as equals in the eyes of democracy. But what’s the story of equality in advertising? It doesn’t take much research to find articles about the changing faces of women in advertising – and yes, things are changing. But the casual sexism, the call-outs and the cover-ups have sparked a different kind of debate. Is misogynistic advertising a thing of the past, or do seeds of it still exist? To answer that, I’ve looked at different portrayals of women to see how things were then…and now.

The imperfect goddess

It’s fair to say that many ads targeted at women are designed to build on preconceived insecurities. And you don’t need to do much googling to find a stack of examples. One of my ‘favourites’ is this extraordinary contraption from back in Kate Sheppard’s days. Although I somehow doubt she would have been one to wear it.

Since then, unrealistic ideas about body image have heightened. In the summer of 2015, Protein World ran a diet pill print ad in the London Underground, with the headline “Are you beach body ready?” It clearly shows that for every ‘real beauty’ campaign, there are also many that pull us in the opposite direction. And even while this clearly shows that the problem still exists, it also drew the most complaints of any ad in the UK that year. Proving that the most powerful force against sexist ads is people refusing to buy the products.

The powerful contributor

From monetising insecurity to the pushing of empowerment, both World Wars saw a call for women to step beyond their prescribed roles. The iconic ‘We Can Do It’ poster is one we’re all familiar with. It served a revolutionary purpose during a time of women unleashing efforts, beyond the confinements of a kitchen.

These empowerment messages are still prevalent today. In fact, women are rapidly becoming a dominating force in mainstream economy. And sporting brands like Nike are doing their best to cement this. One message I’m particularly fond of is their “I’m making myself proud” campaign. I’m sure we can agree that it’s a big step forward, but are these ads the exception rather than the rule?

The domestic servant

So one step forward and then suddenly we’re back in the kitchen. After more positive portrayals of women during the war, men returned home to demand that their women go back to their domestic duties. But as advertising stepped up a notch, so did ads about women in the kitchen. The infamous aluminium ad says it all. With the message “she won’t even need a husband”, it manages to throw two shades of sexism: not only are women housewives, we’re even incapable of handling simple household tasks.

Fast forward to today and many brands still see the value in making a buck out of sexism. The Co-Ops 2017 “Treat your daughter for doing the washing up” ad was aired just last year. And immediately came under fire for its outdated portrayal of gender roles. Not great considering they’re a fair-trade company, who are supposed to follow the very principals of non-discrimination, gender equity and freedom of association. Oops.

The sex object

Closer to the end of the 20th century was when gender stereotypes in advertising started gaining serious attention. Feminist groups began to speak up, protests were making waves and authorities were cracking down on regulations. But just as women’s roles in advertising were being re-evaluated, there seemed to be a different theme gaining traction – sexual objectification. 

Examples from ‘then’ are aplenty, so to speak. A quick google search generates decades of ads with images of women being portrayed as sexually suggestive and submissive. The “Blow in her face and she’ll follow you anywhere” cigarette ad stands as a great comparison for Burger King’s 2009 sandwich shot, which feels like a disheartening step back in time. While this was short-lived, the fact that an office full of bros (I’m assuming) even dreamed and pitched such an idea is significantly regressive – and entirely shit.

Another example, and one that hasn’t been so short-lived, is the work done by New Zealand car rental company ‘Jucy’. Their cover girl’s suggestive depiction and accompanying taglines are outdated, uncomfortable and highlight the very notion that many brands, like Jucy, believe that sexual objectification is still the best way to sell their story.

The socially constructed

In the good news column, truly appalling ads are now harder to come by. But when you look at the internet, you’ll see objectification being shown in a different light. There’s Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, virtual this, augmented that – and of course, the Kardashians. Truth is, the internet’s helped us breed a whole new generation of women. There are those fighting for change and then there are those reconstructing the reality of who they are and what they look like, to their friends and legions of unknown followers.

And even as we snap and re-snap selfies to show ourselves in the best possible light, adding filters to hide imperfections, we know is ridiculous. But it’s also seductive and even lucrative. Never slow to exploit an opportunity, advertisers went straight for the bait – and straight into action. ‘Influencers’ have now built ‘careers’ from oversharing unattainable versions of themselves. All in the hopes of making a few bucks pretending to like a sponsor’s product.

Perhaps the pinnacle of impossible perfection is the Kardashians. As the poster girls for the oversexualised and oversharing dolls of this generation, they’re hardly a symbol for female empowerment. Even Kylie, who’s recently been lauded as a girl-power success – and one of ‘Forbes 30 under 30’, has built a near-billion-dollar fortune out of lip kits. That’s a lot of power, a lot of money and a lot of preying on the insecurities of young, impressionable women. Not the kind of girl power I would subscribe to.

Channels have changed. Faces haven't.

So what do I think about 125 years of selling sexism? Apart from the obvious, you could say that between the ASA pointing the finger and movements like #MeToo, advertising is slowly but surely moving in the right direction. Even when we fall off the wagon and go for the cheap, misogynistic gag, consumers bite back and remind us that we’re now in the 21st century.

But what about the internet? Without the rules and the PR tactics and the careful construction of brands, are we as women doing ourselves a disservice by self-objectifying to nonsensical stuff? While it’s easy and valid to blame misogynistic ad inventors, there’s merit in questioning the internet enablers, too.

Are young women posting bikini shots the liberated trailblazers of a millennial equality? Or are these simply acts of self-objectification? You could argue both. But maybe the latter suggests that even with us as women holding the right and the power to portray ourselves whichever way we choose, these ‘acts’ could be seen as a case of mixed messages and double standards.

Whether you’re for or against the socially charged influence of today, you can’t deny its scale, or its power. But if we as advertisers, creatives, clients and humans are set on wiping out casual and blatantly sexist advertising altogether, perhaps Instagram is a good place to start.

Georgia Middleton is a writer and thinker at Hunch.

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