Sexism In Advertising…A Blast From The Past?

While surfing Facebook a few weeks ago, I came across a collection of ads dating back to the '50s. As I read them all, my jaw dropped a few times; I thought to myself, "Am I ever glad I didn’t live in that era." A great portion of the ads are blatantly sexist towards women making us out to be ditsy, dumb, name it.

As I looked at the ads I contemplated whether or not the advertising industry has changed its ways. Are we able to say that companies have become more conscious and aware of how they portray women in their ads?   Sadly, I’d have to say no. From a company whose purpose is to sell sporting apparel such as Reebok (their latest encourages men to “cheat on your girlfriend, not on your workout”) to a restaurant chain like Burger King whose commercials are supposed to sell food yet suggest that everything is better in threes including a bikini-clad threesome jumping on a trampoline. Sexist commercials are alive and kicking 60 years later and in my opinion, are equally as bad.

The following commercial from Kellogg’s is one of the mildest I’ve gathered because it’s pretty subliminal in the way that it displays gender norms. The commercial shows a girl who plays the role of the assistant to the boy who plays the role of the doctor. I wanted to use this one as an example to touch on how society is conditioned and accustomed to seeing women in what are deemed traditional support roles. It makes me wonder if ads such as these are merely stepping stones in desensitizing us to the more obvious sexist ads in my next examples.

View the Kellogg’s Fruit Loops ad.

After watching the commercial you might think it’s nothing, but I think that it becomes something when you begin to notice that there is an ongoing trend in the world of advertising. It is saturated with subtle imagery and messages which subtly teach us that women are intended to occupy pink collar jobs. I honestly don’t believe that Kellogg’s made a conscious decision to cast the commercial the way it did; I believe that it’s simply a norm in advertising that we’ve become accustomed to. I would have been sincerely surprised (and impressed) had Kellogg’s decided to cast the young boy as the doctor’s assistant, but that’s just me.

This is also apparent in cleaning commercials where a woman’s biggest daily issue might be how to tackle messy floors or how to get rid of tough soap scum. I came across a blog that couldn’t have said it any better: “These gender expectations run deep in our media: mop advertisements show actresses cleaning. You even see new Swiffer commercials with women “breaking up” with their old mops for their shiny new Swiffer mop-boyfriends. Why can’t a man have a romantic relationship with a mop? Do mops have to be boys? Perhaps that makes lawn mowers girls, which is why men are comfortable using them. If we are still talking about sexism, perhaps mops have a higher yearly salary than lawn mowers?” The abundance of household cleaning ads geared towards women makes me wonder whether there’s a correlation with the fact that such ads encourage the second shift: this is where a woman works full time (either outside or inside the home) and is still expected to do the majority (or all) of the household work.

A lot of ads out there aim to spark controversy such as the newest Got Milk? campaign. While Steve James, executive director of the milk board says, “We’re hoping it will ignite some social media discussion and conversation.” My concern with companies who take this stance is: at what point do you start to question your ethics? Is creating an ad titled “The everything I do is wrong campaign” (which implies that women are insane maniacs while on their periods) justifiable in terms of creating social media discussion or is it outright attack towards women?

The ads show men, with desperate expressions on their faces, gripping cartons of milk. These are some of the headlines:

“I’m sorry I listened to what you said and not what you meant.”

“We can both blame myself.”

“I’m sorry for the thing or things I did or didn’t do.”

“I apologize for not reading between the right lines.”

“Let’s agree to disagree with me.”

“Are you a man living with PMS”

“A recent study has shown that calcium may reduce the symptoms of PMS. Got milk?”

If the intent of sexist or degrading ads were to ignite conversation would this make it okay to launch a campaign that negatively singles out a specific race or culture? Call me dramatic, but I interpret this form of advertising as comparable to racism towards women that has somehow become socially acceptable. The ads eventually got pulled due to public outrage; but it still makes me wonder who was responsible for giving the ‘green light’ in the first place? I would expect that a campaign such as this one wouldn’t make it past the drawing table due to its sexist and demeaning nature.

Here is a handful of companies (among many) that I feel have taken the wrong approach to marketing their product by creating a mockery out of women:

Fallsview Casino

Hungry Man


It’s obvious that ads of a sexist nature are tilted towards women; we can’t ignore the fact that this occurs in a somewhat similar fashion to men as well. From commercials that intend to sell deodorant, yet somehow feature half naked men who look as though they’ve just bench pressed 3000 pounds to cleaning product commercials that portray them as inadequate and almost useless around the house. While there are so many ads out there that scream sexism, it’s equally as important to be aware of the subtle ones as well. All in all, something isn’t right when a company is more concerned about the buzz it will create around a product at the expense of women while in turn making an unethical trade off for profit.

To participate in a conversation on Twitter about products and ads that misrepresent or degrade women, check out Miss Representation’s #NotBuyingIt Twitter Campaign.