Blog Post

Sexism in Advertising

Melanie Mazzarini
Kim Lier
Emily Boudreau
Brooklyn Gardner
Cammi Sperling 
Professor Sylvia 
Intro to Communication & Media 
November 27, 2017 

Since the creation of brands, products, and market, advertising has been used as an integral part of promotion. An advertisement is defined as “a notice or announcement in a public medium promoting a product, service, or event or publicizing a job vacancy” (Google). Based off the definition of what an advertisement is, one could say that advertising is the art of promoting a product or service in any form of media. Without a doubt, advertising is inherently a good thing. It allows for companies, big and small, to thrive and spread their business or product on a much larger scale. If it was not for advertising, many successful franchises and businesses would not be in the place that they are. However, despite all of the good that comes with advertising, there are also some extremely negative ramifications that come with it.

Perhaps the most prominent issue within advertising that has consistently existed since its creation is sexism. When products are being promoted, whether it's through a television commercial or an ad in the paper, often times the product is being targeted at an audience in a specific and sometimes discriminatory manner. For example, why is it that Barbie dolls are advertised with only young girls playing with them? The new Star Wars action figures only being played with by young boys? Who created the rules about assigned gender roles to toys and why does advertising prey on and profit off of them? Nevertheless, this is only one example of the issue of sexism in advertising. Sexism is an important issue to note in advertising because it perpetuates further gender stereotypes and creates an unfair and unwarranted divide between who can use what products. The sexism represented within advertising seeps its way into other aspects of life as well. Overall, sexism’s presence in advertising is a global issue that spreads throughout mass media and impacts people on a grandiose scale.

Advertising has been sexist particularly towards women since the first forms of advertising. The history of sexism in advertising can be traced back to the early 20th century, in which the marketing industry were primarily focused on the housewife and her duties to her family and her home. (Bush, Nagelberg, Campbell). Up until recent years sexist advertising was never questioned or ridiculed as it should have been. In the early to mid 1900’s advertising was blatantly sexist, while today sexism is still alive in advertising but much more subliminal. Many companies follow the saying “Sex sells” which many time will create sexist advertising, “ ‘Sex sells,’ goes the old advertising adage. True, but don’t forget its counterpart: ‘sexism sells’ — or, at the very least, is far too often used, overlooked, and tolerated.” (All That Is Interesting) While many companies today know sexism is wrong and looked down upon, they attempt to empower women than put them down, but it may not always be as successful as that had hoped. 
Advertisers aim to please possible consumers by enticing them into their brand with what they believe is wanted to be seen. Examples of sexist advertising in the past related more to men being more superior than women. Advertisements included men walking on women as if they were carpets, spanking women, as well as making assumptions that the only place a woman belonged was in the kitchen. Todays advertisers would never dare put out content similar to that but release a different form of sexist advertising. Women are often used in advertising mens products and often have a minimal amount of clothing on or playing the role of a damsel in distress. Often enough in television advertisements, both women and men are seen as sexual objects while advertising a product such as perfume or cologne.  

An example of the same brand advertising towards women in the past and today would be Kelloggs Cereal. In 1938 Kellogg's released an advertisement showing a husband saying “you seem to thrive on cooking, cleaning, and dusting. What’s the answer?” and she answers “Vitamins darling!” saying that it is because of the cereal she can conquer all household chores. While this is not the worst of sexist advertisements from the past, it is still blatantly sexist. The advertisement shows that women belong in the house to clean and cook, and can do nothing more. Today Kellogg's stands for empowering women, with advertisements saying phrases such as “I’ll never be petite. I’m too busy being strong.” While this message is empowering and starkly less sexist from past advertisements, it is still questionable. There is no reason a cereal can only appeal to women, food is food. Kellogg's should really consider changing their demographic to all genders and ages to abolish their demographic of only twenty to fifty year olds being the people who should be enjoying their product. While sexist advertising has come a long way from the past, there are still many aspects that could be worked on to diminish sexism all together from advertisements.  

When people hear the word advertising they may think many different things. Everyone does not always think of the same thing and many different people have different interpretations of advertising and what it may mean. Two important people that we have talked about in class that mention advertising in their writing is Marshall McLuhan and Lance Strate. They show advertising in many different aspects of life and all the positive and negatives that come along with it. 

In one of McLuhan’s chapters of his book “The Medium is the Message” he talks about a bunch of different content and the medium it matches with. He talks about hot and cold mediums and what type of media classifies as either hot or cold. For instance, he puts television in the category of a cold medium because “ideal type of television display would be a relatively short, non-scripted conversation between individuals, where the televised display takes into into consideration the high degree of participation required from the viewer, and could therefore present complicated situations, consisting of some process to be completed.” This means that a cold medium requires someone who is not just your average person and is a higher up in this world, like a doctor or lawyer. This really can get the audience and viewers into it because they know how to get people involved and what they need to get that connection with their viewers. Therefore a hot medium would be the complete opposite of a cold one. An example of a hot medium would be a play or a theater because it is mostly the cast doing all the work and there isn't much the audience does but watch and get hooked.  Many people would prefer a hot medium because “I am more easily immersed in the participation experience, perhaps due to the hotness of the medium.” There is a lot more participation and anticipation when watching something in a movie theater rather than on a plain old television. For McLuhan advertising is separated into hold and cold mediums and different medias are placed into those categories. 

On the other hand, Lance Strate references how Postman uses the Age of Typography and the Age of Television to argue that the American culture was dangerously out of balance. “In drawing the specific contrast between typography and television, Postman was following the lead of McLuhan and building on an established research tradition within the field of media ecology, and for my own part, I cannot help but also be a great abbreviator in considering the evolving American media environment” (Strate 60). Postman goes along the same lines as McLuhan does but in his own version. He says that certain devices further our understanding for types of communication or technologies. All types of devices are used for different analysis and not one is better than the other. 

Are sexist advertisements an effective marketing tool? There are many forms of advertisement nowadays such as commercials, magazines and billboards. In order for these ads to be effective they must catch the consumer’s attention, keep their interest, produce a desire, and generate an action (Bradley). An effective marketing tool that catches consumers attention is sex. Advertisers have been using sexualized ads for decades to sell their products to consumers because it works. An example that proves this statement true is an experiment with two popular men’s magazines called Maxim and FHM that placed sexually provocative pictures on their covers. It was found that “when a sexy, semi-naked woman appears on the cover, it outperforms an image of a male star, even if that star is someone men want to read about” (Suggett, 2017). The cover of the half-dressed women outdid the picture of the male star because sex attracts more attention since people innately notice sexually relevant content.
The concept of sex sells is stereotyping women as objects of desire and sex symbols which degrades the general perception of women. Every time an advertisement comes out with a scantily clad woman as the focus it not only reflects but reinforces these gender stereotypes in our society. The use of objectified women to sell products contributes to the reason of why sexism is a widespread problem. These stereotypes of women have become so ingrained in today’s society that whether consciously or unconsciously we have internalized these messages embedded in the images and videos of these types of advertisements and now they almost appear to be acceptable and normal.

A prime example of an advertisement that uses the objectification of a woman to gain attention and increase sales is the Lynx shower gel advertisement. In the ad that is directed toward a male demographic there is a filthy female dressed in a bikini in the shower with the words “wash me” written on her stomach (Barber, 2011). The reason why this ad is considered sexist is because the female is just seen as a desirable plaything. Her face isn’t even shown in the shot because it is considered irrelevant to the message that their sending which is women are sexual objects.
Another blatant example of the objectification of women seen in an advertisement is the Guess jeans ad where there is a picture of a woman in a low-cut top sitting on a man’s lap (Barber, 2011). This ad is supposed to be advertising jeans however the way the shot was captured it only shows the two of them from the waist up therefore the jeans cannot even be seen. The point of the ad was to sell jeans however there was also another clear agenda which was to associate their brand with sex appeal in order to increase their sales. They accomplish this by positioning the female on the male’s lap and showing some of her cleavage. This is just another instance that shows how females are objectified to sell products.

These types of sexist ads show that the objectification of women has become a staple in media and advertising. Since it is so common in today’s society there are bound to be rippling effects. An essay in Muse magazine that addresses sexism in advertisements and voices some concerns states “There are serious social impacts from this kind of advertising back on society—unrealistic expectations of women’s bodies and resulting body image problems, sexual and domestic violence, and sexism being reinforced as an acceptable form of behavior . . . we are being subconsciously enticed to buy products by companies who believe that it is okay to use women’s bodies in a sexual way to make their brand cool, hip and sexy” (Portia). The effects that are associated with sexist advertisements are impacting society greatly and if advertisers do not see or care about the negative consequences their ads are creating then our society will continue to be deluded into thinking that women are nothing but objects created for the male gaze.

One topic that individuals don’t seem to understand is that every day, hundreds of millions of people around the world are exposed to the communications that our industry makes, according to the Huffington Post. Those ideas that are broadcasted on television can be interpreted in various forms, both positive and negative. 
Advertising companies are attempting to team up to fix the issue of sexism. But, do you think the effort they’ve put into attempting to fix the problem is enough? Well, it still causes so much controversy, so maybe a few extra steps could help solve the problem. 

Research conducted that women are also disproportionately the ones to appear in domestic settings in commercials. Why is this the factor, you may ask? Because society is constantly changing and ideas are getting thrown around. As generations pass along, some ads become less tolerable to deal with. Some even end up in sexism fights, having people question why they’re “worshipping” one gender and not the other
The Huffington Post quoted that, “However, changing the way women and men are portrayed in media is a critical piece in the fight for gender equality.”

They’ve even created laws to stop gender discrimination with stereotypes on how women and men are supposed to behave. Rules and regulations are set out all over the United States, but whenever those rules are discussed, they are never followed. Advertisers attempt to fix the problem by adding both men and women into commercials so everyone can feel equal, but it will always be a topic of controversy to some. 

I mean, making gender neutral commercials would be a better solution in stopping sexism, but there is always someone bound to say something about it in the process. That would be a genuine idea to make everyone happy and to stop all the controversy happening around television. 

I mean, people just want a reason to argue with others over the silliest of things, commercials are literally nothing to argue over. The only reason people advertise on television and radio is to either get their point across or to advertise a product. The men and women in the commercials are not the ones being advertised. A lot of people don’t seem to get that. Commercials are not about promoting any sort of sexism, and they never try to, unless someone would like to say otherwise. 

In the Huffington Post, they’ve also quoted that, “Axe ads, reviled by most feminists for their blatant sexism and objectification of women, launched a new campaign urging men to find their “magic” ― a 180-degree shift from commercials that had featured hyper-sexualized women drooling over men who smelled nice.” I mean, putting both men and women in commercials seems pretty neutral, so nobody ends up feeling left out. I personally think that it was a good idea for them to do that, since most people were protesting about that anyway. 

A lot also don’t understand that most commercials and ads are meant to be gender neutral! It bothers some of us so much knowing that people will actually fight about this topic. Ads are mainly meant for promotional reason, not for trying to tear someone else down. Many advertisements could apply to a majority of a larger demographic if they opened up their eyes. There are a multitude of products that are advertised unreasonably as gender specific. With a greater amount of awareness and acceptance, sexist advertisements could lessen or even be eliminated from our society. 

In conclusion, advertising can be controversial in many ways through advertising, whether it’s sexism or something else, the issue is always going to arise. Although there are many ways to fix the problem, someone who is watching the broadcast is going to have an ongoing issue with it. 

Works Cited
All That Is Interesting on April 12, 2016. “This Is What An ‘Empowering’ Advert For Women Looked Like Just A Few Decades Ago.” All That Is Interesting, 12 Apr. 2016,

Peck, Emily. “Advertisers Are Actually Teaming Up To Fight Sexism. For Real.” The Huffington Post,, 20 June 2017,

“‘All Advertising Advertises Advertising’ (Marshall McLuhan, 1964).” Pazit's Weblog, 14 Dec. 2009,

Strate, Lance. Amazing Ourselves to Death: Neil Postman's Brave New World Revisited. Peter Lang, 2014.

Bradley, J. (n.d.). Hierarchy of Effects in Advertising. Retrieved December 08, 2017, from
Suggett, P. (2017, March 22). Can Sexual Imagery Really Drive Sales? Retrieved December 10, 2017, from
Barber, J. (2011, February 27). Objectification of Women in Media - Media & Change. Retrieved December 10, 2017, from
Portia, "Sexist Advertising," Muse Feminist Magazine, October 2005. All content copyright © 2005 Muse Feminist Magazine. Reproduced by permission.
Google Images for the featured photo


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