A Problem of Sexism

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“A Problem of Sexism”

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Sexism exists and will continue to sprout thorns in the vines of modern efforts to promote social progression. It’s a reality that is sobering and sharp in the side of activists and marginalized communities, but it’s history and continuously changing effect on society is interesting considering social norms and how standards are changing. One way that this is reflected is in the way that advertising and marketing has changed, or rather hasn’t, in the past 100 years since the 1920’s. The shift in the way that women desired to have themselves represented in society was finally brought to light in a way that the modern world of North America had never seen before: Women could vote. While in hindsight, many would see this as a basic right considering that women make up over 50.8% of the modern day population according to the U.S. 2017 Census, it was not a reality until August 18th, 1920. With this right to vote, it represented much more than just being able to determine who would be voted into office and legislature, it was the first step to kicking down the barred doors of a quelled rage and necessity to be a full and equal part of society.

With all of this in mind, representation matters to this 50.8% of the world, as it’s ripples in how it affects culture and stereotypes in society impact the daily lives of women and female identifying communities. This representation or lack of thereof is primarily pushed through advertising and branding. Consumerism is the main driving force of our economy and society, Americans faced with different types of marketing and branding from a daily basis as much as a minute by minute ratio. Analytics can even advertise different products and campaigns depending on your search history on any device. With all of this in mind, why is it that women are constantly objectified and hyper sexualized in ads when the reality is that the majority of women do not see themselves represented or recognized in these campaigns. To further investigate this, My question is Does sexual appeal and sexism within advertising actually work and how does it reflect in the modern market?

Aerie v.s. Victoria’s Secret marketing, and literature review

While the demographic of today’s market strives towards diversifying the way products are marketed towards women and men, the undertone of using sexuality in an idealized and fantasized manner still prevalent today, one of the most basic examples seen in the Victoria Secret Campaigns where the models often differ from what the customers actually look like. However, this is typical considering that the right to vote for women was only acquired within less than 150 years since the women’s suffrage movement. In a study I conducted to examine the general opinion of a random sampling size as to what advertisement the viewer gravitates towards, I presented two different campaigns from the companies Aerie and Victoria’s Secret companies that market towards the female demographic and sell lingerie and comfort wear. The viewer was shown a campaign ad photo and a video to accompany it. They were then asked the question of Select which Campaign you find to be a better advertisement in which would more so incline you to buy the advertised product which in this case is women’s lingerie. and made a selection. Both survey images did not include the company name in order to remain un biased.

These results came back in stating that they preferred the Aerie campaign in comparison to the Victoria’s secret Ad, with only one vote for the Victoria Secret campaign and the other 15 votes for the Aerie advertisement. It can also be noted that in the last year according to Business Insider, that Aerie’s in store sales went up by a record 38% in the first quarter of 2018, while VS brands went down by 5% last year. This data only further confirms that the market in regard to using sexuality and women as a selling point within advertisements are moving in a different area that supports more so a body positive message no matter what demographic rather than enlisting in providing a photoshopped fantasy. The Aerie campaigns also make it a point within their ads to include that all the photographs and videos used to advertise for the underwear brand are untouched and have not been airbrushed to stray from the organic image. This is a stark contrast to the Victoria Secret campaign which is infamous for retouching and using models who, according to customers who have been interviewed in the past, are hyper sexualized and unrealistic.

In the article Empowerment/Sexism: Figuring Female Sexual Agency in Contemporary Advertising by Rosalind Gill, Gill explains how this shift came to be in the modern age.
Advertisers had to respond to ?sign fatigue’, to viewer scepticism, and also to the impact of feminism on lifestyles and attitudes (Goldman, 1992). Women’s increasing financial independence meant that they became targets for new products and also forced a reconsideration of earlier modes of representation: showing a woman draped over a carto take an emblematic image of sexism from the 1970smay not be the best strategy if the aim is to sell that car to women. Moreover, by the late 1980s and early 1990s, advertisers had begun to recognize the significance of many women’s anger at being objectified and bombarded with unattainable, idealized images of femininity.

Advertisers started to rethink their engagement with female consumers and their ways of representing women.
There is also a strategy that advertisers have used in the past in where in the past, the female icon used in adverts were shown as their worth to a man being the most valued aspect of their existence, which can be shown in this example of a vitamins commercial. The commercial displayed below here states that The harder a wife works, the cuter she looks! and when asked how the wife can always seem to thrive on household chores, she responds that she takes her vitamins. The goal here being that if she wants to be worthy of her husband’s attention and to be beautiful to him, she must work harder to keep the house running and keep her pep up while doing it.

In the early 21st century however, there was a new icon that is identified as a Midriff who encapsulates what is the target audience in this century. The midriff, as defined by Rosalind Gill as a young, attractive, heterosexual woman who knowingly and deliberately plays with her sexual power and is always ?up for it’ (that is, sex). This figure has become known in some advertising circles as the ?midriff’, named after the fashion for exposing this part of the body that was ubiquitous between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s This can be seen for example in the advertisements for the Wonderbra?® where the woman in the advertisement is seen in a cleavage bearing bra, and in between her breasts is the slogan I can’t cook, who cares? The point of it was to use feminism in a way to appropriate it to the benefit of advertising agencies. This strategy called ?commodity feminism’ tries to take the energy that is in feminist ideals but repackage them where it loses its social and political objectives.

This new shift in this recent time is taking a new direction with how women are depicted in adverts. The modern woman is financially independent, is usually part of the LGBTQ community, and is aware of the deafening results of the #MeToo movement. Above all, what people want in the products that they buy and the adverts that are directed to them is to see themselves in these advertisements. This can be seen in the shaving adverts from the company Billie which uses inclusivity and representation to advertise their razors. The models are some who are minorities, lgbtq youth, and women who get to choose However, Whenever, (and) if (they) ever shave. It is an unprecedented take on traditional shaving campaigns, where the actress or model is a typically a heterosexual white woman who shows that being shaved is the equivalent of being attractive and feminine. Ads like Billie show that generation x women are redefining what it means to be feminine, and are taking power of the definition.

It’s important to note, that while these are facts and realities of our daily lives, why does it matter? Advertising and Marketing in a hyper consumerist country and world is extremely important because if affects everything in our daily lives. Like said previously, adverts surround us continuously and infiltrate our phones, computers, and social medias as much as 5,000 adverts exposed to a single person daily. And when something becomes a normality, often it can be hard to discern how it is affecting people psychologically. Shaving campaigns from the 1920’s are an excellent example as to how something that was used to sell an item became a mentality for the majority of the modern world.

The 20’s were filled with everything the American dream could offer. Riches, entertainment, luxury, and the liberation of female sexuality that came with the suffragette movement to secure women’s right to vote. The Flapper was a stylish young woman who challenged conventional standards, one of them being the lengths of their dresses and lack of sleeves. In this change, shaving companies saw an opportunity to take on a new consumer, and used rhetoric to shame women for body hair. Since much of a woman’s goal and intention was to marry rich or win the attention of a man, this made them east targets for companies to start gearing products towards females to increase sales. How embarrassing! says the man in the image at seeing a woman with a mustache. This use of shame to make women buy the razors is just a small example at the larger point that marketing an idea can change the mentality of an entire country and world at large. As stated in Provocateur: Images of Women and Minorities in Advertising By Anthony J. Cortese, Ads try to tell us who we should and shouldn’t be. This couldn’t be any truer, in this example where a marketing scheme became a global mentality. Cortese also illustrates the three main trends in advertising towards women.

  • There is a major distinction between what is considered to be appropriate behavior for males and females
  • Males are dominant females are passive insubordinate. The sexual objectification of women requires that they remain silent and lack a voice
  • The masculine role is appreciated it while the feminine counterpart is disregarded or scorned

These guidelines to how marketing has affected society is not only unbelievable, but is still relevant to this day in the way that companies seem to gear their strategies when marketing their products towards a changing demographic. In an interview that I conducted with Karen Cudillo, Glamor Magazine’s college woman of the year, we discussed some of the long term affects of how advertising can either hurt or support women and all identifying persons in the strides to make changes to become a more inclusive and validating society for all persons. As an activist for not just only women, but immigrants and LGBTQ youth, everything matters. You cant put up a billboard and not have the intention of impacting a person. Actions are caused by intentions and those actions have the power to disregard human kind or to bring it to the table and make it a worthy partner in this circle we call life. Karen recalls growing up as a immigrant in the United States and often felt that she did not see herself represented in what Corporate America defined as American. There were so many times that I would look at my friends who had dolls who were dressed as doctors, princesses, and career women, and they were all white. It seems silly at first, but in hindsight it is those small details in your upbringing and branding from companies that give off the message that minorities are not destined to be doctors, lawyers, or Vets when they grow up.

In essence, it is the little things, and often the big billboard signs that shape the way that society functions. It has only been 150+ years since the start of women having a say in voting results, but since that time much has happened that could lead to a more successful future in where advertising agencies as well as modeling/acting agents will select people who represent the consumers who are buying into the product, rather than just using women as a tool to further exploit and objectify them in society for the pleasure and political agenda of men. While in the past it would have been suitable to display women in a domesticated and minor counterpart to the male species, this is no longer the case and the sooner that agencies realize this, the better they can serve not only the companies in which they are working for, but the people who buy into them.

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A Problem Of Sexism. (2019, Jun 24). Retrieved January 30, 2023 , from

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