‘You've Come a Long Way, Baby’: The Lag Between Advertising and Feminism

Even at the height of ‘women’s liberation,’ products aimed to female consumers were actually marketed to men.

The Atlantic
In July of 1968, Philip Morris released a spin-off of its popular Benson and Hedges cigarette brand. The modified cigarette, in design narrower and longer than Philip Morris’ previous offerings, was launched during a time that found many Americans newly aware of the dangers of smoking. It was meant, as a distraction from that, to evoke elegance—a certain daintiness. Which is to say that the new cigarette brand was marketed toward women. Virginia Slims, Philip Morris announced in its ads, were “tailored for your hands—for your lips.” And they were, in all that, “slimmer than the fat cigarettes men smoke.”
But the cigarettes also had, the company suggested, a deeper appeal. Virginia Slims were, in Philip Morris’ presentation of them, tobacco-infused celebrations of progress itself. And their marketing was broad in every sense of the word. Virginia Slims were aimed at the newly liberated (or, well, “liberated”) women of the ‘70s—women whose lives had been transformed by advances in politics and medicine, women who were newly able to think about “careers” as well as “jobs,” women who were able to consider divorce in a way that would have scandalized their mothers and grandmothers. These were women, essentially, who were able, for the first time, to think about their lives playing out on somewhat of an equal footing with men. And ads for Virginia Slims, the cigarette that celebrated this equality by contradicting it, spoke to those women as directly as they did breezily: “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
This was, of course, a promise about the world much more than an accurate reflection of it. Advertising, aimed so squarely at the public id, has a way of cutting through noise and niceties and reflecting what people really want. Or at least what advertisers have decided they really want. And what women of the ‘70s really wanted, the (mostly male, mostly white) advertisers of the time assumed, was similar to what many of them still want today, despite all the progress that has been made in the meantime: to be attractive to men.
Take, for example, these Lolita-esque ads for Love’s Baby Soft—“perhaps the most feminine of all feminine products to have ever existed on Earth,” as this cultural history of the product sums it up. Baby Soft, a scent that was a kind of proto-Axe for Girls, was developed by the pharmaceutical company Smith & Kline, and released in 1974. Its oooof-inducing slogan was, “because innocence is sexier than you think.” It was unclear, oooofingly, whether the innocence in question was being marketed to women … or young girls.
The campaign’s print ads were accompanied by a TV spot that was approximately 1,000 times more disturbing, by today’s standards, than the still images. The ad, narrated by a man whose voice alone evokes Burt Reynolds’ mustache,  promises that Love’s Baby Soft offers the scent of “a cuddly, clean baby … that grew up very sexy.”
Women, buying products based on what ads tell them men want: This, of course, is a tale as old as Madison Avenue, and also as old as time itself.
Sometimes the campaigns were explicit about that. Take this ad for Weyenberg Massagic shoes, published in (yep) Playboy in 1974 and submitted to Ms. Magazine’s “No Comment” section:
The ad was, unsurprisingly, controversial—not just because of its slogan or its bare-chested model, but also because of its core assumption: that the way to keep a woman “where she belongs,” if that is indeed your goal, is to buy her things. Captivation by way of consumerism.
Weyenberg, Jerome Rodnitzky notes in Feminist Phoenix: The Rise and Fall of a Feminist Counterculture, reveled in the controversy. “Weyenberg is taking the first positive stand for masculinity,” the brand declared, expressing a sentiment that will feel faintly familiar today, “against the influences of the women’s liberation movement.” The brand, it explained, was trying to target the men who rejected “effeminate and women’s liberation appeals.”
In response to this logic, the National Organization for Women gave Weyenberg a mocking prize: the “Keep Her in Her Place Award.”
N.O.W.’s nominating committee might have also enjoyed this gem, first issued in 1969 but extant into the ‘70s:

As Stanford’s School of Medicine notes, in its Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising project:

Tobacco companies know as much as the next guy—sex sells—and they have no qualms with objectifying women to sell their product. As early as the 1930s, cigarette advertisements featured sexy women to lure men to the brand, and by the late 1930s, pin-up girls were frequently used on cigarette advertisements to appeal to male audiences. The Tiparillo advertisements in the "Should a gentleman offer a Tiparillo” campaign (1968) are shameless in their objectification of women, with the models showing cleavage (plus) as well as intense eye contact. As expected, recent advertisements of the 1990s and 2000s are no better, as such images become more commonplace in modern times. These ads target youth explicitly. Though they primarily attract young men, they also manipulate young women into believing that a certain brand of cigarette might make her sexier and more attractive to men.
Ads of the era made use of yet another tactic that will feel familiar today: body-shaming. The ad below concerns itself with “girls with too much bottom and too little top.” Yet it brings good tidings: Warners, the ad announces, can take your misshapen body and remold it into something socially acceptable! Why suffer in pear-shaped silence, when you can buy your way to an hourglass?

What’s striking, seeing ads like these through the lens of the 21st century, is—in spite of everything—their familiarity. Feminism may have, in the decades that intervened between the ‘70s and today, solidified into a set of conventions and norms. The women’s movement may have become absorbed into the culture—into our conversation and our media and our habits of mind. We may take for granted the idea that women’s bodies and lives are much more than playthings for men. We may assume that if the arc of history bends toward justice, that goes for matters of sex and gender, too. But pop culture also has a way of lagging behind political movements. And many ads today—be they for underwear or footwear or baby-powder-scented body spray—are in their way as retrograde as these specimens from the ‘70s. They can assume that women’s consumer decisions are based on conceptions of male desire. They can assume that the key decision-maker in a commercial transaction, regardless of who spends the money, is a man.

We may well have come, in the words of Virginia Slims ads, “a long way, baby.” But we still have far—very far—to go.