Are TV Ads Getting More Sexist?

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How sexism in ads has changed in the last 50 years as women emerged through the feminist revolution, took the lead in higher education, and achieved parity in the labor force

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The Atlantic's special series on ads, brands, and the science of shopping wraps up this week, but we couldn't finish without addressing one lightning rod of marketing: sexism in advertising.

The first question to address when writing about sexism in advertising is: Where do you even begin? It's a true cliché to point out that women are objectified in ads, including those selling products to women. But the nakedization of advertising isn't female-specific. Abercrombie ads objectify men in a similar way. We're a visually explicit culture that's become comfortable with selling domain names and winter coats on the backs of pretty, naked people.

Having lost the argument that women are incompetent, American advertising has settled for the argument that women are attractive.

I'm more interested in the deeper trend: How has sexism in advertising changed its tone in the last 50 years as women emerged through the feminist revolution, took the lead in higher education, and achieved parity in the labor force?

When I first posed the question to my editors, I assumed it would be easy enough to answer. Commercials from the 1950s are jaw-dropping in their prejudice. Some of the decade's slogans -- "The harder a wife cooks, the cuter she looks!; "Christmas morning, she'll be happier with a Hoover"  -- are peep-holes into an era when women's roles were confined to the corridor between the bedroom and the kitchen. The ads depicting women outside that stretch of home tended to be even more offensive. Sixty years later, it's utterly impossible to imagine even Anheuser-Busch (considered by some I spoke with to be the standard-bearer of modern macho advertising) running an ad as hideous as this:


Women used the second half of the 20th century to punch, slap, and roundhouse-kick that kind of coffee-jerk prejudice. Their education revolution is one of the most positive economic developments of the last 50 years. For a moment during the recovery, there were more women than men in the workforce. Guys are still a minority in higher education. Far from the marginalization of women, this magazine famously contemplated the end of men in a cover last year, and again this year.

"The 1970s helped us shed the notion of women as second-class citizens in America," says Barbara Berg, the author of Sexism in America. "And yet, one could say that sexism is probably America's default setting, and we're occasionally jerked back into that setting."

Take, for example, the two tragic bookends of the last decade. The events of 9/11 reintroduced the machoization of American culture, Berg says, and the Great Recession shocked men in a unique way.

"According to many scientific studies, the most important aspect of manhood is the ability to support one's family," she says. "When the recession messed with that, it messed with something fundamental to masculinity." As a result, we saw more ads responding to men's softness, or emasculation. It was a boomerang against "the end of men."

***

With the help of Berg and editors at The Atlantic, I reviewed some of the more famously borderline-sexist ads over the last ten years and compared them with older spots. What has happened is that sexism has become sort of camp in American society. Racism's implication in American history is beyond question, and a racist remark is considered, in Berg's fine terms, "a violation of something sacred."

A certain kind of sexism, however, is still considered pretty funny and not terribly sacred. In most modern ads, there are two kinds of sexism. First there is winking sexism, where women are objectified but something in the ad seems to acknowledge to the audience: "We know we're being sexist, so that makes it okay." Second, there is the boomerang sexism, where we see men fighting back against their domestication and emasculation. Here are some examples of each:

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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