Portrayal of Women in Advertisements


We’ve come a long way, maybe.  The portrayal of women in advertisements is one indicator of the progression of gender equality.  Sociological and communication theories dictate that Social Constructionism is the human understanding of how social functions operate in the world; and, how we, as humans, construct that rationalization into verbal and non-verbal messaging (i.e. ads).

In the Virginia Slims ad above, the caption reads: You’ve come a long way, baby.  Today, they use: Find Your Voice.  Essentially, they’ve gone from “Hey, you’re getting there,” to “Speak up.”   In a declining industry where nicotine addiction is dying, due to the social construct no longer considering smoking to be sexy, provocative, and progressive; but, rather, dirty, smelly, and downright unhealthy, the image that “Find Your Voice” conjures up is this one:


Below are some other photos to examine the development of the general public perception of women. Businesses work off of perception in order to strategize how to best market their product and drive sales.  Provided are ads from 40-55 years ago and current day ads, in order to qualitatively assess how far we’ve progressed in gender equality, and also to consider how susceptible we are to the power of suggestion in media.

THEN    Image      

Granted, housecleaning burns calories; however, this ad signals that a woman’s top two priorities are a clean home and keeping her weight down – which, they may very well be!  What about making the focus more on improving health than on decreasing weightThe messaging is: An attractive woman is one who cleans and is slim. 

NOW  ImageHere we have women who do exhibit healthy weight, and they are proportional.  How about beautiful, healthy women (e.g. Olympians) who are not so proportional?  If we are told, “Beauty is as beauty does,” how about ads which focus more on the beautiful deeds that a woman accomplishes?  I’d love to see women leaders with beautiful skin who use Dove.  The messaging here is: Women are allowed to be heavier, as long as they’re proportional. 

THEN  ImageDoes this mean that women who are bad cooks make for bad wives? Or, does this imply women who can not cook should resign themselves wistfully to (God forbid!) never marrying?  The messaging suggests: Husbands are not to cook; wives are.

NOW ImageWhile Chef Gordon Ramsay is not a woman, it is interesting how an excellent male chef is tolerated for his nightmarish kitchen antics.  The amusement is so high, his infamy has spawned a TV show.  How is it, then, that women –  who are, according to social construct, supposed to be the cooks – are not viewed with such amusement for behaving similarly in the kitchen?  The messaging suggests: It’s okay for men to behave badly; women not so much.

THEN ImagePerhaps this ad of treating the woman as a misbehaving girl is more tongue-in-cheek.  However, domestic violence (not to mention other forms of abuse, general harassment and disparagement of the era) is a real issue; one not to be (pardon the pun) cheeky with.  The messaging suggests: Wives dare not make the foolish mistake of purchasing for your husband other brands, otherwise you have been warned and thereby merit the punishment that will ensue.

NOW  ImageThis ad for young women to attend this all-girls’ school ruptures the fairy tale notion that women have to rely on men to have a fulfilled life.  One of the best lines in the movie Pretty Woman is at the end, when Richard Gere asks Julia Roberts, “What happens after the princess gets rescued by the prince?”and she responds, “She rescues him right back.”  The messaging is: Be financially and emotionally self-sufficient.  You can achieve this through education. 

THEN  ImageThis ad has the word “woman” underscored to emphasize how difficult it is for a woman to open a bottle of ketchup.  The messaging is: Women are the “weaker sex.”  How will she eat if a man is not around??

NOW  ImageThis ad for make-up demonstrates how a woman can be feminine, beautiful, AND strong.  This works.  A thematic representation of strength could include other ways women demonstrate strength and femininity.  For example, a woman wearing MAC make-up giving birth in her home with her doula.  What better example of womanhood, beauty, strength, and power is that?  Another idea is to show women in formerly male dominated industries and professions, e.g. commercial airline pilots, police, etc.  The messaging here is:  Women can be strong and beautiful; one does not preclude the other.

THEN ImageWho came up with the idea that smoke in a woman’s face is an aphrodisiac?  Perhaps this is why this brand is no longer in existence.  The messaging here is: Women are such simpletons, they will follow you home after you exhale onto them like a VW Bug exhaust pipe.

NOW   ImageThis current ad for athletic wear signals practicality by calling the clothing “training,” not “trendy.” However, the colors and the jog bra scream “Look at me!”  The last thing a female jogger needs is to be harassed during a run when she’s in her zone.  This is not advisable for street running in a city (unless you wish to avoid being hit by an oncoming vehicle), it works for maybe a gym or the countryside. Is it possible to have muted colors; not neon?  How frustrating it is to be relegated to just neon and pastels for women’s athletic wear!  The messaging here is: Stand out from a crowd (in your stereotypical female colors).

THEN  ImageAds like these wreak havoc on marriages.  Home & kitchen appliances are NOT, generally speaking, what women want for Mother’s Day, birthdays, Christmas &/or any other major holiday.  The messaging here is: Your wife will love you for allowing her to keep the house clean.

NOW ImageAs part of “walking advertising,” this tank top asserts how women are intelligent creatures whose talent must be recognized by serving as our country’s leaders.  It is wasteful for them to be stuck in a kitchen &/or home.  The messaging suggests: Hey, Haters…If women were equal already, I wouldn’t be wearing this shirt.

THEN  ImageThis tiresome ad for vitamins associates women with cleaning (again!), and attempts to connect how a man’s wife would look better if she could only work harder.  The messaging is: A woman will become even more attractive when she works hard cleaning her home.  Start pill pushing to satisfy your needs.


This Pantene commercial (click on image) drives home the poignant truth about how women are not only judged negatively, they are judged in stark contrast to the men who exhibit the exact same behaviors.  Why?  Because it is not in alignment with the social construct.  I personally love the truth of this ad, and, I love how they also show a woman with a pixie haircut, as well; not just caveman-pulling length hair.  The messaging suggests:  Confidence makes women immune to the labels and they will continue to feel and look fabulous, which only perpetuates their success.  You can get there with great hair.

THEN Image  This ad for neckties shows a man in bed.  Logic dictates: Why would a man wear a tie to bed?  The wife is literally kneeling, and the husband is in a power posture with his hands behind his head and his chest puffed out.  The messaging is clear: Dominance and subservience. 

NOW  ImageMemac Ogilvy & Mather Dubai (i.e. NOT the USA) created a series of ads for UN Women (an entity under the United Nations) to demonstrate how actual Google searches (See Blog on Top 10 Websites of the World to know that Google is #1) reveal the continued widespread prevalence of sexism and discrimination against women. These ads expose stereotypes as well as outright denial of women’s rights.  The searches are placed over the mouths of the women, clearly signaling the opposite of Virginia Slim’s “Find Your Silence” with the message that the woman’s voice has been silenced all over the world.  The searches bear lines such as: Women should…stay at home, be slaves, be in the kitchen, not speak in church; and, Women cannot…drive, be bishops, be trusted.   The messaging here is: We need to continue making the case for women’s rights, empowerment and equality.

We’ve come a long way, maybe.  Together, we can get there.

Yentl…er, um…Rossina Gil, MSOD, MAIS, is a Leadership and Organization Development Practitioner, author, cultural analyst, coach, speaker, and facilitator.  CorporateLookingGlass.com

©Rossina Gil, 2014


About Rossina

Thought Partner & Corporate Primatologist

Posted on February 27, 2014, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Very informative.
    Thanks, Yentl.
      A. Victoria C. Lanier
    7th Symptom of Inner Peace: “Frequent, overwhelming episodes of appreciation.”
    >________________________________ > From: Rossina Gil >To: avclanier@att.net >Sent: Thursday, February 27, 2014 1:42 PM >Subject: [New post] Portrayal of Women in Advertisements > > > > WordPress.com >Rossina posted: “We’ve come a long way, maybe.  The portrayal of women in advertisements is one indicator of the progression of gender equality.  Sociological and communication theories dictate that Social Constructionism is the human understanding of how social functions” >

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