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Are your ads sexist?

by Nextness published July 3, 2012 posted in Insights

Hila Shachar is a freelance writer and Honorary Research Fellow within the Department of English and Cultural Studies at The University of Western Australia. She also writes about feminism, among other things, for her blog le projet d’amour. We asked Hila to write about sexism in advertising; we hope that this post raises awareness of what sexism in advertising can look like, and sparks discussion. Thank you Hila.

Have you ever thrown your remote control at the TV after watching an ad? When you’re a woman, there’s usually a good reason for this rage: it’s called sexism. Here are some of the worst sexist advertising trends.

1. The 1950s housewife stereotype.

One of the most popular sexist stereotypes in advertising is the ever-familiar housewife. The ‘good housewife’ stereotype is an icon of traditional femininity where women are seen to be created to serve others in the home, and she features everywhere in cleaning products advertising. Such ads often assume domestic chores are women’s natural function in life, determining their personality and self-worth, in a strict 1950s gender model.

I saw a question on Twitter which asked, “What are the worst stereotypes about mothers that advertisers play on?” One of the replies was “that everyone is secretly judging your loo, and by extension, your value as a woman.” This response refers to Harpic Hygienic’s ‘Like a New Loo, Everytime’ ad in which a woman is ‘scored’ out of 10 on the level of her toilet’s cleanliness. The basic premise of this ad is that a woman’s worth is determined by how well she ‘performs’ in the household as a good housewife. What is this, The Stepford Wives?

2. Making women into objects.

Objectifying a woman is quite simply turning her into an object or a ‘thing’. The problem with presenting women as objects is that it denies any sense of humanity or individual will, as if women and their bodies are created purely for someone else’s pleasure and use. It’s the same as treating them as slaves, and this is how degrading it can get in advertising:

No PETA, women aren’t pieces of meat. They’re not sexual toys to be tied up and whipped. They’re not the sum of ‘tits and ass’. They’re not a convenient body which you can demean to sell your ‘message’.

These are only a few of the many sexist ads PETA have created, featuring women as abused, degraded and decorative sexual objects. The sad thing about this is that we’re so used to seeing women treated as objects in advertising, organisations are now adept at exploiting their bodies for their own gain. PETA’s ads work on the same basic premise as these ones:

Natan Jewellery ad. Yep, that’s all women are: something men can access with the right ‘accessory’:

And hey, American Apparel, how about just selling the damn socks and pants, rather than women’s bodies?


Women aren’t created to be pleasing decoration, objects reduced to body parts, or ‘things’ to be exploited. ‘Tits and ass’ is not good advertising, it’s lazy, unoriginal and insulting.

3. Violence against women isn’t ‘artistic’, it’s disgusting.

You may have noticed the rise in insensitive ads which make light of violence against women. Here are two prime examples:


She doesn’t need to ‘look good’, she needs a restraining order and police protection. Believe it or not, this is an ad for a hair salon. Just as bad is this advertising campaign for veganism by PETA. These depictions of violence against women in advertising essentially normalise violence. It should never be okay to opportunistically use abuse as advertising. Ever.

4. Pink! Pink! Pink!

I get that it’s easy to pull out the pink palette in ads to signal ‘FEMALE STUFF’, but enough already. We’re not all pink-loving, stiletto-wearing, shopping-obsessed, walking stereotypes. But even if some of us do love those things, and I’m not knocking anyone who does, this doesn’t mean we’re to be treated like little girls. Some ads can be so infantilising, that I wonder why they’re aimed at grown women. I’ve seen a few makeup ads where the female model pouts like a 3 year old, stares blankly into the camera in wide-eyed innocence, and bats her eyelashes sweetly. Representing women as little girls is both condescending and sexist, because it suggests that’s the level of our intelligence.

5. Your body is a problem, let’s ‘fix’ it.

Many ads that seek to sell beauty products to women work on the subtext that women’s bodies are a ‘problem’ that needs to be ‘fixed’. An aspect of sexism is the idea that women’s bodies are ‘inferior’ and in need of constant ‘perfecting’ in order to be deemed ‘acceptable’ by society. And many ads exploit this, particularly ads for ‘feminine hygiene’ products. These ads typically work through a message of female self-hate: you should be ashamed by what goes on ‘down there’, so here’s a product to help you cover everything up and pretend it doesn’t exist.

But rather than showing a bad example, I want to show a (relatively) good one: this ad for tampons by Kotex.

It’s not perfect, but I’ll tell you what I do like about this ad: it doesn’t shame women for a perfectly normal bodily function. It doesn’t suggest there’s something ‘offensive’ about their bodies in need of ‘fixing’. Rather, it sells a product they need in a manner that shows a woman in control of her body.

That’s the best way to sell stuff: don’t degrade us, don’t talk down to us, and treat us like adult human beings.

Honorary Research Fellow and freelance writer Hila Shachar regularly contributes to The Australian Ballet Blog, Behind Ballet, and can also be found on her own blog, le projet d’amour. She is also the author of the forthcoming book, Cultural Afterlives and Screen Adaptations of Classic Literature: Wuthering Heights and Company.

 

 

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