How the representation of women in advertising has changed

What is the representation of women in advertising? In adv, men have generally been portrayed as strong, intelligent and hard-working, but the same cannot be said of women.

By now (fortunately) women are, more often than not, valued by the media, but it hasn’t always been like this. Not long ago, sexist ads encouraged women to be primarily two things: a maid and a man’s accessory. Even after helping to keep the world going during WW1 and WW2, women were still viewed as passive and, in a sense, inferior.

Still, women are a very important target for advertisers: according to a 2019 study by The Economic Times, 58% of contemporary ads are aimed at womenagainst 38% who cater to both genders.

Let’s take a look at how ads have gone from portraying women as passive housewives to celebrating their strength.

The representation of women in advertising

Early 20th century

Before the first television advertising aired in 1941, print and movies were two of the most effective ways for advertisers to promote their products to large audiences.

Print advertising

In 1908, Henry William Hoover (inventor of the upright vacuum cleaner) founded his eponymous brand in Ohio, USA.

By the 1920s, the Hoover vacuum cleaner was recognized throughout the United States as an essential household product. And the narrative that the brand’s ads pushed to promote their cleaning device was that a Hoover was a woman’s greatest wish.

It was common to come across Hoover print advertisements accompanied by captions such as: “Don’t let her down again this Christmas. Get her a Hoover“, “Give her a Hoover and you’ll give her the best” And “Hoover will safeguard your pride in having a clean home“.

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Early 20th-century advertisements like this one portrayed the average woman as a maid whose only desire in life was to keep the house in order to please the husband.

Cinema advertising

In the 1930s cinemas started popping up everywhere and some of the most important films in the history of cinema made their debut, such as The Wizard of Oz And Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

For advertisers, the advent of cinema meant a captive audience to which to promote their wares.

An example of a 1930s big screen commercial is “A Movie Mystery” by Dreft, which follows a character called Mrs Smith who, of course, is in the kitchen doing the dishes.

The narrator recommends that viewers, like Mrs. Smith, start using Dreft detergent for washing dishes and glasses.

This is just another example of how, in that era, women were seen as nothing more than rulers.

Here is a gallery of advertisements from the 1930s.

Representation of women in 1940s and 1950s advertising

In the 40s and 50s television spread like wildfire, so much so that. in the late 50s. most people in western countries owned a television.

Naturally, more and more advertisers capitalized on this new audience by investing in the production of screen advertising.

While women assumed many “masculine roles” during WWII, these ads were also filled with sexist stereotypes.

In the selection of 1940’s commercials below, collected by Now This Newsthere’s an obvious guideline: women have to be up to men’s standards.

The 60s

Coke (1961)

In 1961, Coca Cola recruited the actress Connie Clausen as the star of a TV commercial centered on an outlandish theory: the famous drink is weight loss. “With Coca-Cola you don’t worry about the waistline“, Connie recited, before delving into explaining why soft drink is useful for weight control.

Even leaving aside the scientific aspect, we know how harmful it is to convey to women the message that their worth is intrinsically linked to their physical appearance.

Wanting to find a positive note, at least the protagonist is a career woman, instead of a housewife chained to the stove.

Kodak (1964)

We return to the kitchen with this Kodak commercial, in which we mourn her Betty White packs a picnic for the beach while talking to viewers about Kodak color film.

Even if the protagonist is not intent on cooking, the setting definitely leaves something to be desired.

The representation of women in advertising in the 70s

Tab Cola (1972)

In the early 1970s, real progress began to be seen in addressing gender inequality in media and advertising.

Let’s see this commercial as an example Tab Cola from 1972: There isn’t a man, kitchen or cleaning product in sight. However, the advertising world had found another way to “exploit women”: turn them into objects of male desire.

Women (like the one seen in this commercial) began to be sexualized to entice men to buy the product or service.

Tab (1978)

Six years later, the beverage brand released the spot “Beautiful People“.

As the name suggests, the commercial features a series of people, including a woman at work, a beauty queen, a sporty woman on a bike.

It seems clear that advertisers were starting to understand that women were not all the same and to celebrate diversity instead.

The 80s

Martinis (1981)

The subjection of women to the male gaze was an even greater problem in the 1980s; after the decade of liberation, women frequently appeared in advertisements wearing skimpy clothes to arouse the interest of men.

An example above all: The advertising of the waitress on skates by Martinifrom 1981.

B.T. (1988)

The BT commercials of Maureen Lipman from the late 80s are hilarious to say the least, but with some less-than-ideal themes running throughout the series of ads.

For example, in the commercial advertising BT’s telephone ordering service, it is immediately clear that Lipman’s character wants nothing more than to buy electrical household products such as vacuum cleaners and washing machines. It feels like we’re back in the 1920s.

The representation of women in advertising in the 90s

Bounty (1990)

Sex sells” was the motto of the 90s and advertisers strove to find new and original ways to feature half-naked women in their commercials.

For example, this Bounty commercial takes viewers to an exotic beach, inviting them to “taste heaven” while staring at a bikini-clad woman.

But there is one aspect in which this commercial differs from the Martini one that aired a decade earlier: Bounty also included a half-naked man, for the benefit of the female gaze. Yep, it was about time women got to check it out too.

Spice Girls (1996)

If we think about the girl power in the 90s, there are only them: le Spice Girls.

The pop quintet inspired women everywhere to embrace their personalities to stand out from the crowd.

The most powerful sentence of the commercial is that of Mel Cwho uses his moment to exclaim: “Look out guys, the girls are here!“.

It seemed that the new millennium would herald a new era for women.

The 2000s

Gillette Venus (2000)

Just after the end of 2000, Gillette released its Venus commercial which promised women they would feel “like goddesses” if they used the brand’s new line of razors.

It’s evident from the outset that the commercial aims to encourage women to shave their legs for themselves, not to impress men.

This notion is confirmed when the female narrator says: “It is something all goddesses are entitled to“, speaking of smooth skin. The men? Who cares!

Mercedes (2007)

Even after the 2000s, some brands weren’t ready to understand how unacceptable it was anymore stereotyping women as unintelligent.

One of the most famous examples of the 2000s is represented by the commercial MercedesBeauty is nothing without brains“. In this commercial, a woman, without realizing her, was ordering her lunch from a librarian, mistaking her for a fast food clerk.

What can I say…at least the expert librarian represented the smart women of the world!

The representation of women in advertising since 2010

John Lewis (2010)

In 2010, the department store chain John Lewis celebrated women with an emotional and powerful commercial, reminding people back home that women are the glue that binds all aspects of life.

Nike (2017)

By the end of the decade, advertisers realized how profitable it was (both for them and for their audience) to push the belief that women were capable of anything.

Suddenly, strong, resilient women were in fashion and no one (not even men) was complaining.

Some of the best examples of ads that empower women come to us from Nike, like “This Is Us” of 2017.

From 2020 onwards

Dior (2021)

100 years after the Hoover print ad, Dior post a commercial with Natalie Portman in which the man is a mere accessory in her life.

How the cards on the table have changed.

Squarespace (2022)

For the Super Bowl 2022the New York-based website company Squarespace has recruited Zendaya for his commercial revolving around a successful business woman.

Squarespace uses this young entrepreneur example to inspire young women to start their own businesses.


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