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Mar 1, 2018 | 4 min read

Then and Now: the Evolution of Gender Stereotypes in Advertising (and How Far We’ve Yet to Travel)

Digital Marketing

The course of true progress for women never did run smooth.

It’s Women’s History Month, which means that it’s a time to recognize all of the brave, well-deserving sheroes among us who have paved the way forward from women’s suffrage to the #MeToo movement.

Of course, alongside all the Rosie the Riveter and Susan B. Anthony tributes, I couldn’t resist reflecting on all the progress we haven’t made in other areas: namely, in the wild, often backwards world of advertising, where comparing women to used cars apparently hasn’t yet been banished.

From beauty products to soda, let’s take a look at the cringeworthy highlight reel of sexist advertising past and present — and where we can go from here.

Your Only Job is to be a Mother, and You’re Not Even Good at It

So you’re a mother, or a housewife, or even a single lady — it really doesn’t matter, the advertisers of decades past could find ways to mock and belittle you in any role!

Your attempt at cooking dinner was cute, but at least there’s beer. (Schlitz, 1952)


How dare you not perfectly de-cling your child’s school uniform? (Downy, 1978)


And for a peek at how far we’ve come — now, we acknowledge and exploit the inadequacies of single women, too!

Cleanliness, but Mostly Beauty

Beauty is the essence of cleanliness…and cleanliness is the essence of life…or something like that.

Of course, we’ve long been clued into a little “secret”: a woman’s value hinges upon her ability to look younger, longer. If objects supposedly meant for silly things like personal hygiene can also perform the vital role of keeping us young forever, well, all the better. (Palmolive, 1951)


What’s that? You can stay looking younger while performing all of your household chores, too? More power to you! (The Pioneer Rubber Company, 1958)


The silver (fox) lining: recent ads, such as Dove’s widely popular “real beauty” campaign, have challenged these traditional notions of beauty by showcasing models of diverse age, size, and race.


A Woman’s Place is in the Passenger Seat

Fast cars have long been considered men’s territory, at least as far as advertisers are concerned. Which is why this ad seems, at first glance, like a breath of fresh air (Morris Oxford, 1958):


Wow, how revolutionary! This ad acknowledges that a major purchase, such as an automobile, is a joint decision made by man and wife — but of course, things like “sensible doors – safe for children” fall squarely within the “Ladies Dept.” A man certainly can’t be bothered with the wellbeing of his offspring when he’s revving up from 0-70 mph in 45 seconds, can he?

Fast forward fifty years, and we have this charming gem (BMW, 2008):


This ad speaks directly to men (and their purchasing power), excluding women’s agency from the narrative entirely. Here’s the not-so-subtle insinuation: while you might not be the first man she’s slept with, it’s still worth taking her for a “drive.” Comparing a woman to a used car — always classy!

The Path Forward: Breaking Out of the Traditional Gender Molds that Bind Us

Of course, sexism dictates the behavior of men in our society as much as it does women. It’s even created a complex fondly referred to as “fragile masculinity,” wherein men must be convinced by high-paid ad executives that they’re allowed to drink girly diet soda without feeling an ounce of shame (Dr. Pepper, 2011).


In case there was any confusion…Dr. Pepper packs 23 flavors, 10 “manly” calories — and is definitely NOT FOR WOMEN. The transparency of the targeting in this ad is almost more offensive than whatever sexist machinations were at play in its development.

So the big question is — where do we go from here? The first step is simply acknowledging that the gendered nature of advertising doesn’t suit us anymore. Women are increasingly becoming primary breadwinners and decision-makers when it comes to large purchases (contrary to the popular belief that they’re only consuming shoes and sparkly dresses), and it’s time for brands to step up their game.

We’re looking forward to working with you, too.

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