Objectification and Sexism in Advertising

Ah, the 1950s: what a delightful era. It brought us Elvis Presley, hula hoops, poodle skirts, drive-in movies, and of course, the golden age of television. As the television industry boomed, so did the advertising industry, what with the added reach that television allowed. TV also provided a superb outlet for sexism in ads, which had already proven to be wildly popular in print ads for decades. Objectification in the advertising industry is an old hat it would seem, as women have continued to be advertised as everything from the dutiful housewife to the dutiful bedroom partner ever since those first sexist ads appeared in print. But this is 2018, you say! The sexist ads of old simply would not fly in our enlightened age! And yet, here we are.

Objectification in Modern Day Ads

A quick flip through a magazine or two, or a 30 second viewing of a Mr. Clean commercial, is all it takes to find evidence that sexism and objectification is still running rampant in the advertising industry. According to the ads we see, women are the primary parent, the housekeeper, the grocery shopper, the nurse, and the cook. What’s more, they are frequently used as sexual objects to sell product, and sometimes, the product isn’t even relevant to what is shown in the ad, such as this ad for American Apparel from just a few years ago:

American Apparel

The above is not uncommon (and is quite tame, comparatively) for American Apparel, who has been in the hot seat many times due to their controversial ads. They aren’t alone – car manufacturers BMW and Aston Martin had an outright war over each others’ ads, both of which objectified women in order to attract sales.

When it comes to advertising, objectification of women is paramount it would seem, especially in car ads. And while women are often in the car ads themselves, they seem to always be standing next to the vehicles, and not, oddly enough, driving them.

Unless of course, the ad is for a minivan. The ad below is the first hit in a web search for “minivan ad” and its star is, of course, a grocery shopping mother. Disappointing to say the least.

Stereotypes in Advertising

Gender roles clearly play a pretty big part in advertising. Diaper commercials, for example, always show the mother caring for and changing the wiggly baby, and rarely is the father even in the commercial – he must be at work, bringing home the bacon. And then there’s this bizarre Mr. Clean commercial, in which the mother cleans the entire house and her family, who did zilch to help by the way, spend the last few seconds of the commercial “sniffing” the freshly cleaned bathroom, as though they’d never seen a clean bathroom before.

The stereotypes and objectification don’t end there, nor do they stop at women. Men in advertising are either flawless models in suits (or wearing barely anything), or they are useless slobs who are stupid. When men do appear as the caregiver or as the person cleaning in an ad, they are portrayed as either incompetent or, conversely, sexual objects, such as in this Mr. Clean ad:

The sad part about the stereotypes and negative gender portrayals in ads is that it actually reaches an audience that can become deeply affected by them – children.

Hypersexualization: Girls in Advertising

Here are some scary statistics: five year old girls are worried about getting “fat” and their self esteem peaks at the age of nine. NINE! And 80% of girls feel worse about themselves after seeing an ad for beauty products. That’s eight out of ten girls – girls who are still children. They feel pressure to avoid being fat at such a young and tender age, and they feel immense pressure to be beautiful. The effects of hypersexualization of girls in ads leads to girls as young as six to realize that they are expected to be sexual.

These are children. They aren’t supposed to worry about such adult material.

Thankfully, there are people in the world who have taken notice and have attempted to change the way companies advertise. A group under the hashtag #WomenNotObjects began to fight back in 2015 when they headed their campaign to stop women being objectified in advertisements. Their mission was to “teach girls that their worth is not their weight, their looks or their body parts, but who they are, what they have to say and what they can do.”

Their words have not fallen on deaf ears – in Vancouver, the YWCA has created a simple tool that allows people to report overly sexualized or offensive ads to Advertising Standards Canada. Other countries have such tools as well, such as Australia. Soon, other countries will follow suit, and make the changes necessary moving forward. Maybe someday soon, car ads will be about cars and women will be driving them. Men will be diapering babies and cleaning the bathtub. And children will be allowed to just be children.

About Lauren Hall

Lauren is a Canadian Writer and Blogger, based in Calgary. In addition to her freelance work, she is an Human Resources professional by trade. Lauren is always hungry for information, and has developed many hobbies in her pursuit for knowledge: she is an amateur archer, avid goldfish enthusiast, zombie aficionado, proud dog owner, and a casual gamer.

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