“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 popular
still to date is the portrayal of women in advertisement, especially how
agencies use these images to draw in consumers. Although a myriad of feminist
efforts have attempted to dispel advertising’s unfavorable gender stereotypes,
this dispute is still underdeveloped. Furthermore, feminist activism has
created comprehensive positive and negative impressions on advertising,
especially in the altering of sexual stereotypes and negative body images for
women, but lends itself more to failure than success.

Feminism, a recently developed term, emerged in the early
20th century for the United States. Because white, educated, urban,
and middle-class women were the primary buyers for their households, they were the
target for a majority of advertisements. By appealing to a women’s desires,
which at the time included freedom from convention and personal pleasure, ads
commonly appropriated feminist rhetoric and practice in non-essential products
to attract these women. Around 1960, feminism reemerged and the second-wave
presented itself. Viewing advertising as “the primary means by which society
pressured women to fit into idealized roles as wives and mothers”, feminist
groups sparked a series of protests against large ad companies. As sexual
stereotypes in advertising became apparently clear to the public, ads began to
reflect the impact of these second-wave demonstrators by portraying women in
non-traditional roles; the number of women employed in advertising nearly
tripled. However, the success of feminism was not maintained, and the 1980’s
were perceived as “a time of backlash against feminism in both politics and the
media”. Women, portrayed as insecure and dependent on men, no longer held their
presence in advertising as companies stopped working with feminists (McDonough et al. 558). This
resentment was viewed as a time of retaliation for many, including the infamous
Guerrilla Girls who rented advertising space on New York City’s public buses where
their poster’s display caused a stir (Girls and Newton 158). “By
the 21st century, feminism’s impact on advertising could be felt most in
society’s increased awareness of sexism in advertising, an awareness that was continually
encouraged by feminist journalists, scholars, activists, and even advertisers.”

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The success of
feminism on advertising has, as mentioned above, had many tremendous
implications. For instance, there are currently many internet sites devoted to
the representation of women, and a large number of international women’s
organizations that continue to “both monitor women’s representation and resist
increasingly global domination by a small number of corporations in which women
have little to no power” (McDonough et al. 558). In addition, the amount companies invest in
social causes has grown extraordinarily in recent decades. One cause that has
been visited by many companies is “femvertising”–the celebration of women
empowerment through advertisements. Some of the most well-known examples
include Dove’s “real beauty” campaign, and the Always “like a girl” challenge.
High levels of perceived company-cause fit are known to enhance consumer
attitude. However, in the case of femvertising, such an association is not
always evident. Companies as diverse as Verizon, Dodge, and Under Armour have
released commercials encouraging women to acquire or proudly display
traditionally 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 the
ideal androgynous woman: pretty, yet strong; decisive, yet gentle”. While
androgynous-woman scripts have been used in advertising as early as the 1970’s
and 80’s, this is the first time large corporations have taken an essentially
activist, or feminist, position. Some suggest that it is the grassroots nature
of social media that helps boost the spread of corporate messages, like
femvertising, that take an activist stance.

 

Conversely, many have
attributed the success of femvertising to the product that is being sold. “It
is easier for companies that make female-centered products and services to
produce ads that champion women. Thus, male-centered products are not applying
the same rhetoric to their advertisements, showing little to no growth from
feminism’s prominence.” Such a theory opens the doors to the critiques and lack
of success that feminism has had on the advertising industry. Abitbol et al.
notes that these ads draw attention due to their “insistent requirement for
individual women to overcome their self- doubts”, often with the help of a
brand or a product, which is not unlike victim blaming in domestic and sexual
violence cases. The messages often fail to recognize that girls’ and women’s
self-doubts are not the result of personal weakness or lack of intelligence.
Rather, these doubts reflect long-standing gender hierarchies that praise them
not for their brains, wit, work ethic, athleticism, or resilience, but
predominantly for their appearance. Encouraging women’s individual success,
bravery, and progress is admirable, but it also appears hypocritical if the
companies behind these messages have a sizable gender pay gap, or fail to give
a paid maternity leave to their female employees (Abitbol et al. 117-138).

 

In the decades since
researchers 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 blatant
simplicity of stereotypical gender images” and there is said to be a wider
palette of roles and images for women in the media. However, researchers have
actually discovered that stereotypical portrayals have continued and even
increased in the last few years. The Scale for Sexism has been used in a
multitude of studies to examine the portrayals of men and women in various
cross-culture media, including television and magazines. Kacen and Nelson used
this method to extend two previous studies (Pingree et al. 1976 and
Lazier-Smith 1989) about sexism in socio-cultural magazines. Their findings
suggest that the gender portrayals in print advertising media remain
disappointingly sexist, stereotypical, and limiting. Consistent with the
earlier studies, sexist portrayals of women in advertisements is, on average,
the worst in Playboy, followed by Time and Newsweek, and Working Woman. The
large number of female ads in the data appear to reflect the current ethos of
today’s third-wave feminists–women in their 20’s and 30’s, prime targets for
advertisers, who have grown up in feminist environments and don’t subscribe to
the feminist ethos of the 1970’s, women who can “discuss lipstick and liberation
in the same breath”. The undesirable consequences of stereotypical advertising
and its detrimental effects upon women’s self-concepts, achievement
motivations, and self-images are widely acknowledged, yet still disregarded by
ad agencies (Kacen and Nelson).

 

Furthermore, scholars
have observed a long history of feminist messages being appropriated for
marketing purposes. Many companies that produce female-empowering
advertisements, or ‘ad-her-tisements’, have been exploited in their false
activism by not truly supporting the feminism activist movement, but
manipulating customers for bigger profits. One of the most famous examples of
this is Dove, a brand of feminine beauty products that promotes “real beauty”
and sells products to make women more beautiful. At the end of their
advertisement “Patches”, it states, “Beauty is a state of mind”. If such a
claim is true, why would women need to buy any of their beauty products? This
statement directly contradicts the products it sells. Dove’s approach, considered
by Baxter as feminist consumerism, encourages women to “channel dissent and
practice self-care by engaging with corporate marketing campaigns and
purchasing beauty products”. By advertising self-acceptance, but at the same time
increasing sales by promoting the consumption of women’s products that
encourage compliance to the standard beauty ideology for women, Dove’s critique
of beauty is greatly contradictory. As Baxter states, “The Dove campaign does
not decenter the role of beauty in women’s lives, but rather suggests that
beauty and self-acceptance can be accessed through the purchase of Dove beauty
products; the same is true for the widely known Pantene “shine strong”
advertisements.” By engaging in this trend, ad companies are truly taking
advantage of feminism. Their goal is to make the consumer believe that their
company is passionate about their cause while not necessarily supporting the
messages they publicize.

This paradoxical
advertising is especially apparent when examining the male-targeted ads from
the same companies. It is often the case that women in these ads are treated as
no more than a prop, and greatly exhibit anti-feminist ideas. Women in the
male-targeted advertisements analyzed by Baxter said no more than one sentence
in 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 is
commonly discussed as one of a man’s favorite outfits, a sundress. The ad’s
images of these women portrays the opposite of feminist ideals and contravenes
their sister-company’s push to promote female empowerment. The implications for
this research is that “ad-her-tisement messages do not have a ring of validity
to them when the brands send them out to participate in a trend as a tactic to
turn a profit” (Baxter).

A similar phenomenon
called ‘ironic sexism’, referring to “having a sense of humor about gender
stereotypes”, has also been demonstrated in advertising in the post-second wave
feminist period in U.S. culture. Advertisements aimed at women communicated ‘ironic
sexism’ by allocating a sense of power to the women, sometimes exaggerated and
mockingly, in a way that advertisements aimed at men did not. This clear irony
is part of a wider and continuing backlash against feminism, which has paved
the way for the return of a patriarchal gaze in advertising. Advertisers that
implement 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-product
of popular culture as it reinforces existing ideologies while creating new ones
(Blloshmi). As Bronstein states, media frames, such as advertising, can be a
powerful 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, and
will continue to be, a powerful indicator of the United States’ advances toward
an equivalent society. Considering that feminist efforts and activism towards
advertising has produced more negative consequences than positive ones,
different approaches or strategies might be useful in gaining greater success for
the future. Although there have been some advances towards gender equality in
the field of advertisement, this country still has a long way to come.