Are TV Ads Getting More Sexist?

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.

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:


In 2003, Miller Lite debuted an ad with two busty women having a cat-fight in a fountain. The spot acknowledged its own ridiculousness by revealing that the whole fight had been imagined by two guys talking in a bar, while their girlfriends looked on in disgust. Implication: Yes, this ad is sexist, but we filmed two women reacting to its sexism, because we're so entirely aware that it's sexist, thereby sidestepping any explicit charge of sexism. Ta-da!

In a Bug Light ad, two young men sneak into a yoga class to ogle at women in spandex before the instructor calls them out. Implication: Yes, objectifying women in spandex might seem sexist, but the instructor's castigating glare represents our moral awareness that these guys are wrong to ogle, even though sneaking in to yoga classes to spy on women is, let's all admit, a real hoot!


Today, the best example of the boomerang trend might be the new Miller Lite campaign that mocks men for not acting sufficiently manly, or for mimicking women. Naturally, the panacea to this sort of creeping feminization of manhood is crack open an ice-cold Miller Lite.

In a much-discussed 2010 Super Bowl commercial, "Man's Last Stand," a sequence of sullen men stare forward with a voice-over announcing their various submissions to married life -- "I will listen to your friends' opinion of my friends; I will carry your lip balm." Because of these small domestic tortures, the voice concludes, men should act like men and drive the car they want to drive. Implication: Adult relationships are an eternal parade of emasculation. Thank heavens for cars.

The 2010 Super Bowl was a bonfire of gender-charged, and borderline sexist, advertisements, like the Dockers' "It's Time to Wear the Pants" campaign and a Dove spot that similarly acted as if consumer products were the saving grace for men burdened by their wives' expectations. But this was the most explicit boomerang against women gaining the upper hand in relationships: a Flo-TV ad that mocked a boyfriend shopping on a football Sunday. Implication: Adult relationships are an eternal parade of emasculation. Thanks heavens for small TVs.

You might find none, some, or all of these ads sexist. But I think three points are beyond question: First, modern commercials are aware that they are objectifying women, and their winks prove it. Second, there has been a marked uptick in advertisements that acknowledge men's feminine domestication and charge us to do something, or buy something, about it, and it would not be a stretch to tie these marketing tactics to economic trends (read: Hanna Rosin).

Third, these are not the sexist ads of the 1950s. They don't portray women as second-class citizens, failures, or helpless victims of male superiority. Having lost the argument that women are incompetent, American advertising has had to settle on the argument that women are attractive. The latter point certainly stands up to scrutiny better than its alternative. A post-sexist age of advertising might be elusive. But it counts as a small victory, if not cause to throw a parade, that we've reached this moment, just a few decades after it was fashionable to scream at women for making bad coffee and not even pretend to feel wrong about it.