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
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.
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:
"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."