The thing about advertisement is, if done well, all the flashy layers that overlay the basic human need (that the advert is appealing to) is easily forgotten. A solid script, theatrics, music, good-looking people–they’re all there to evoke a response in you without you knowing.
It’s calculated, nuanced. Think of all the ads you’ve seen where someone cracks open a beer and suddenly there’s a party. The underlying promise is, “Drink this beer, and you’ll have fun with all your friends!”
For women, however, it sometimes seems like the end game is almost always love. Many lingerie and fragrance ads are targeted at men, because, you know, women only want to look and smell good to get a guy.
In advertisement, for women, love isn’t a reason to exist but it’s the reason to exist.
And though this is changing with some agencies embracing the diversity of femininity (i.e. Nike, Naja), the standard between advertising for women versus men still has some way to go.
History has shown that in advertisement, for women, love isn’t a reason to exist but it’s the reason to exist. It’s not the same for men. Advertising is a shallow industry by design. But in recent years, with a paradigm shift in the real world, the question remains whether the industry preys on deeply ingrained vulnerabilities or enforces them.
Here’s a timeline of key advertisements from the last century that have, explosively or passively, use romance to appeal to the woman psyche.
In the early days of modern advertising, everything was more transparent. Just take a look at this advertisement of 1916 from the Woodbury Soap Company by J. Walter Thompson. The headline reads: “A Skin You Love To Touch” and the sub-headline reads: “You, too, can have its charm if you begin the following treatment tonight.”
The painting that appears in the ad by Mary Greene Blumenschein is an offer to anyone who writes in, but it’s the most important visual element of the ad. It’s what makes the ad say, “Buy this soap, and he’ll love touching you.”
Sure, you can argue that touch is romantic–and it is, arguably. But we’re talking about soap! Multi-purpose soap, at that, facial soap “for skin, scalp and complexion.” Soap will make you charming, lovable, touchable, and as unfazed as the woman in the painting.
This deodorant ad makes some bold claims, saying, it’s “A Girl’s Greatest Asset” and it’s “something men never speak about that every Girl should know.” Translation? Smell nice and he’ll dance with you. The ad goes on to talk about Mum’s deodorant in the large chunk of text which actually highlights the drive to win, but there’s no denying that the visual take-home, at least, focuses on women as an object of desire (who must smell nice), while Dr. Pepper’s says, “Ladies, grab a Dr. Pepper and grab your guy.”
Granted, here, you can argue that the guy gets the same message. But chances are, it’s the girl, not the guy who’ll be shopping for the picnic or the household fridge.
This one’s a little more nuanced than the Dr. Pepper one. The headline reads, “So refreshing… so welcome… everywhere.” Translation? Drink Coke and you’ll be refreshing and welcome everywhere, and some guy will look at you like we’re the refreshing, welcome everywhere types. Cool.
Granted, with WWII there was a change in focus of most ads: on the home front, most ads featured calls to the army or focused on what people could do to help their country. Still, wherever women could be introduced, they were either portrayed as good housewives and mothers, eagerly awaiting the return of the men in their lives, or, required to look a certain way to keep the spirits of the men up.
Pond’s Powder and Pond’s “Lips”–how the Allied forces won the war? “Promise you’ll always keep that beautiful smile!”
No translation required. I’ll just say this–the guy probably had horrible teeth. Not to mention she looks disgusted, if not pressured to smile à la Betty Housewife.
“Be Sociable, Have a Pepsi.”
I know what you’re thinking–How did women ever get dates before fizzy drinks existed?
Or better yet, get a groom? I guess we’ll never know. But notice how the women in these ads are almost static; how they serve as props because their sole duty is to their man.
By the mid-1960s, it was a known fact that smoking was linked to lung cancer. Cigarette ads were still very much at their peak. Still this ad, and many more followed drove home the same message: The woman who smokes has a man.
While cigarette sales did eventually see a downward trend after public health became a concern, cigarette sales did sustain themselves for the decade following.
Still, nothing says “happily ever after” like Lenox Chinaware.
If you’ve seen That ’70s Show, you know that the decade that followed the decade of bra burning and peaceful protests didn’t do much for gender roles in the long-run.
Women were still neat props to sell booze, especially hard liquors–which were typically marketed at a male audience to begin with, and still encouraged to look a certain way to be the object of every ‘gentleman’s’ attention.
If there’s one rule that’s remained unchanged through time, it’s the classic “This Perfume Will Make You Smell Nice and Him Love You” advertisement. The 1980s were no exception to the above ad.
Still, the ’80s marked an intense gender diversification in advertising. Chuck Norris was King. So while there was still the classic, “Gee, Your Hair Smells Terrific” shampoo ad, the supermodel was Queen
Cindy Crawford and Christie Brinkley weren’t only many found attractive, but also women who came off as independent and strong. Shampoos got an upgrade from being something to help a girl land a guy to something that’d help other women look “healthy.”
It’s always one step forward and two back, isn’t it?
This was Calvin Klein’s second controversial campaign, following Brooke Shields’ in the 1980s (which at the time was likened to “kiddie porn;” Shields was fifteen). While the campaign set the monochrome tone for future CK underwear ads, it’s clear this ad isn’t saying, “I’m just a piece of art.” (Ads never are.)
But the ad must’ve done something right, because by the end of the 1990s, Calvin Klein Inc. made $170 million in sales–a number which largely continued to climb to date.
In 2006, Dove released their “Evolution“ ad, which begged the question, when did our perceptions of beautiful women become so distorted? And the Campaign for Real Beauty was, in a lot of ways, an important conversation-starter.
While that conversation was being started, though, there were some ads that continued down their usual path big time.
2010s + Future
While some brands will continue their routine under the guise of high fashion, there’s no denying that the recent years have seen a paradigm shift in female-driven adverts.
Naja’s “Nude for All” campaign looks at lingerie as functional and feminine without a male gaze, as seen above.
What we know about female-driven adverts is that they work; female-empowering advertising works. Just like other media, especially visual media, like movies and television, representation is great for sales.
Love as the end game is by no means a new idea. Way back in 1949, Simone de Beauvoir wrote in The Second Sex: “The destiny that society traditionally offers women is marriage.” While it’s been nearly seventy years since the book’s first run, very little has changed when it comes to female portrayal and appeal in advertisements.
Arguably, advertising agencies are aware and recognize underlying stereotypes in our society to at times exploit them. While change is inevitable–and on-going–there’s still much, much more to be done: Perhaps it’s time that ads caught up to the real world and stopped reinforcing age-old cliches for sales.