The Image of Woman in Advertising

PART II Woman is made, not born

Look in a mirror. If you are a woman, what do you see? A woman waxing a floor? Feeding children? Spraying her hair? Scribbling on a steno pad? Gazing at a man with mixed reverence and awe? The simple mirrors that hang over bureaus and on the backs of closet doors only tell us superficial physical things about ourselves. The real-life mirrors are the media, and for women the most invidious mirror of all is advertising.
There once was some concern over the danger of subliminal advertising that would force people to make subconscious decisions about products or politics. Advertising today is not subliminal, but its subtle psychological effect is as devastating as any secret message flashed at high speeds to unsuspecting viewers. Advertising exploits and reinforces the myths of woman's place with messages of such infinite variety and number that one might as easily deny that the earth revolves around the sun as entirely reject their influence. Advertising is an insidious propaganda machine for a male supremacist society. It spews out images of women as sex mates, housekeepers, mothers and menial workers - images that perhaps reflect the true status of most women in society, but which also make it increasingly difficult for women to break out of the sexist stereotypes that imprison them.
Ironically, one hope remains: that the constant humiliating image of the role women are expected to play will draw their degradation in lines too bold and clear to ignore, and that women finally will arise in disgust and outrage to destroy the distortions reflected by that real-life mirror and to challenge the existence of sexism itself.
In December 1969, outside Macy's department store in New York City, a group of women staged what may have been the first protest demonstration against the image of women presented by advertising. Mattel Toys, the target of the protest, had run an ad in Life magazine to promote its line for the Christmas trade.

  • Because girls dream about being a ballerina, Mattel makes Dancerina ... a pink confection in a silken blouse and ruffled tutu. . . . Wishing you were older is part of growing up . . . Barbie, a young fashion model, and her friends do the »in« things girls should do - talk about new places to visit, new clothes to wear and new friends to meet,

said one part of the ad. The other half declared:

  • Because boys were born to build and learn, Mattell makes Tog'l [a set of building blocks for creative play].

The illustration showed a boy playing with

  • . . . imaginative and fantastic creatures that challenge young minds to think as they build. . . . Because boys are curious about things big and small, Mattel makes Super-Eyes, a telescope that boys can have in one ingenious set of optically engineered lenses and scopes . . . that . . . create dozens of viewing devices - all for science or all for fun.

»Mattel Limits Little Girls' Dreams« and »Girls Were Also Born to Build and Learn« charged the signs strung out in front of Macy's that day. Passersby were curious. Some stopped to read the leaflets; some nodded their agreement as the sidewalk traffic nudged them on. Media Women, sponsor of the demonstration, wrote a letter to Mattel, but there was no reply.
Advertising begins stereotyping male and female very early in life: the little girl who was taught to want to be a model or a ballerina and imbued with the importance of how she looks and what she wears grows up to be a thirty-year-old Barbie Doll with advertising still providing the cues.
Madison Avenue Woman is a combination sex object and wife and mother who achieves fulfillment by looking beautiful  and alluring for boy friends  and  lovers  and cooking, cleaning, washing, or polishing for her husband and family. She is not very bright; she is submissive and subservient to men; if she has a job, it is probably that of a secretary or an airline hostess. What she does is not very important anyway since the chief interest in her life is the »male reward« advertisers dangle enticingly in front of her.  ("Male reward« is, in fact, the argot used in the trade.)
Behold the complete woman constructed by American advertising. In adolescence she has passed the stage of playing with dolls, but her life goals and interests have not advanced appreciably, as witnessed by this ad from Parker Pens:

  • You might as well give her a gorgeous pen to keep her checkbook unbalanced with. A sleek and shining pen will make her feel prettier. Which is more important to any girl than solving mathematical mysteries.

Later, the Quest for the Holy Male becomes more serious business, with toothpaste, hair color, brassiere, cosmetic, and mouthwash companies all competing to help land the man who is, after all, the prize a young woman has striven for since prepubescence. Ultra Brit toothpaste »gives your mouth sex appeal«; Colgate mouthwash is »the mouthwash for lovers.« An ad for bath oil shows a man embracing a woman while the copy blazes away: »Sardo. When you live with a man.«
Nearly half the women in the country work, but you wouldn't think so to look at American advertising. A woman's place is not only in the home, according to most copywriters and art directors, it is in the kitchen or the laundry-room. An ad for IBM declares, »Your wife's office is probably better equipped than yours« and pictures a youthful housewife surrounded by the shining implements of her trade: wall oven, electric stove with grease hood, blender, rotisserie, four-slice toaster, and electric coffee pot.
If television commercials are to be believed, most American women go into uncontrollable ecstasies at the sight and smell of tables and cabinets that have been lovingly caressed with long-lasting, satin-finish, lemon-scented, spray-on furniture polish. Or they glow with rapture at the blinding whiteness of their wash - and the green-eyed envy of their neighbors. The housewife in the Johnson's Wax commercial hugs the dining room table because the shine is so wonderful; then she polishes herself into a corner and has to jump over the furniture to get out. Bold detergent shows one woman in deep depression because her wash is not as bright as her neighbor's.
In a country where the low status of maids probably cannot be matched, where the more than one and a half million household workers (98 percent female, nearly two-thirds black) have median year-round, full-time wages of $1,523 - they are excluded from the federal minimum wage laws - it is an amazing feat of hocus pocus worthy of Tom Sawyer and Phineas T. Barnum to lovingly declare that domestic labor is the true vocation of women wearing wedding bands.
There is a special irony in the fact that women, who presumably spend most of their waking hours in the kitchen or laundry-room, receive instructions about how to do their housework from men: Arthur Godfrey, who probably never put his hands into soapsuds, tells women across the country why they ought to add still another step to their washing routine with Axion Pre-Soak. Joseph Daley, president of Grey Advertising, says that men are used because the male voice is the voice of authority. Others add that while the execution of housework is only menial, thus female, the development of detergents and polishes is scientific, therefore male.
One of some half-dozen female advertising agency presidents, Franchellie Cadwell (Cadwell-Davis), adds another wrinkle to the interpretation of the strategy behind household cleaning product commercials. She thinks the White Knight and Giant-in-the-Washing-Machine images are sex symbols that help housewives assuage their own guilts and imagined inadequacies by acting out a cleanliness neurosis (or fetish!). In any event there is an obvious attempt to promote sexual fantasies with soap advertising. One Lever Brothers commercial tried to project a virtual love affair between housewife and soap-suds. The product, called »Hero,« was to be terribly male; women were to be able to have a liaison with the detergent while their husbands were at the office. »Hero« was an animated Greek God, and hundreds of women bearing baskets of laundry were shown worshipping at his feet. The commercial was run in test  markets but was  withdrawn because  of objections from the public - not from women, but from people who protested on religious grounds, saying it was blasphemous! In a commercial for Chiffon dishwashing liquid, a woman is dreamily doing the dishes when a handsome stranger a la Marcello Mastroianni slips in through the back door, kisses her hand, and gets soap on his lip. End of fantasy.
The mother role is expressed more by cooking than cleaning. »Nothin' says lovin' like something from the oven... « Pillsbury did a study of the American housewife which came up with the not unexpected conclusion that motherhood is her primary drive, - and obviously she loves to stay home and cook. In fact, advertisers appear to believe that women feel guilty when they don't spend enough time preparing meals for their families. One marketing consultant declared that Kellogg's corn flakes with freeze-dried bananas failed, because Kellogg »violated woman's sacred prerogative, that of participating in the preparation of at least a portion of a meal for her family. She wants convenience foods, but she doesn't want to feel guilty or foolish because everything has been done for her.« The consultant did not consider the possibility that dried-up bananas might be unappetizing.
Like the »soaps,« ads that involve cooking or child care assume that only women can do these jobs - or ought to - except for backyard barbecuing, which was somehow certified as »male.« Even advertisers for other products seem to think that women have a cooking fixation. Buick ran an ad with a picture and recipe for seafood mousse on the apparent assumption that there wasn't anything it could say about cars to interest women readers.
It is recognized that women do work outside the home, but the only work they appear to do in advertising is the kind that allows them to assist, or make life more pleasant for, men. Some of the ads seem to be selling flesh on the hoof. Like this one for Iberia Airlines: »This nice little blonde from Barcelona will romance you all the way to Spain. And England. And France. And Germany. And ...« Iberia leaves the rest to your imagination. New York Chemical Bank's ad about its new »hostesses« boasts that »We have a pretty girl who won't let you get in the wrong line.«
IBM talks about the businessman, obviously male, and his secretary: »If she makes a mistake, she types right over it. If her boss makes a revision, she types just the revision.« Somehow, secretaries, who are always women, make mistakes; bosses, who are always men, make »revisions.«
Dictaphone Corporation adds a new insult to the men-are-bosses-women-are-secretaries routine. A pretty blonde woman in a micro-mini skirt sits at her desk polishing her nails as four worried men try to arouse her interest in some calculating machines. Says the copy: »Our new line of calculators goes through its final ordeal. The dumb blonde test.«
Often the image of woman as sex object is not cluttered up with the extraneous idea that women hold jobs, even if they are jobs as helpers to men. In the »pure sex object« category, women are exploited outrightly for the titillation and amusement, sometimes even the sadistic fascination, of men.
Myra lanco Daniels, president of Draper Daniels, Inc., in Chicago, sees a »feudal concept of women as property« in some cigarette commercials: »One gets the impression that the girls are given away as premiums although these brands aren't featuring coupons at present.« Silva Thins is the epitome of the genre. The handsome, unsmiling man in dark glasses punishes any woman who presumes to take his cigarettes. With cool deliberation, he deserts them on highways, ocean liners, cable cars, and mountain tops. Another variation in the campaign proclaims: »Cigarettes are like women - the best ones are rich and thin.«
A male columnist in the trade publication Ad Age admits that the commercials have »silent masochistic overtones,« meaning that the ad relies on the culturally submissive female response. Women, the columnist says, »seem to feel right at home with the situations. They quite willingly put themselves in the place of the suffering heroine.« He concludes, »The makers of this campaign demonstrate a shrewd insight into the emotional make-up of today's woman.« The hero »summarily puts his girlfriend in her place, exactly where so many women would unconsciously like to be.«
Like the Silva Thins commercial, woman-as-sex-object ads generally seek to fulfill male fantasies about seducing or wielding power over women. For example, »Tonight offer her a daiquiri made with Ronrico, Puerto Rico's tasteful rum. Then watch her slip into something light and comfortable.« A promotion for Newsweek magazine, featuring scantily dressed harem girls lounging voluptuously around a grinning, rotund Arab sheik, reads: »Compound your interest. Quote Newsweek...« An ad for Thane Mills, a company that manufactures cotton, pictures a supercilious-looking man standing over a woman, her eyes cast downward. »The Thane of Scarsdale,« trumpets the ad. »In blue-chip suburbs like Scarsdale, or anywhere else, it gives you that special look of authority.. . . For the man who's in control.«
Automobiles are this country's phallic power symbol, and cars are used to prove a man's masculinity. Obviously, women are the logical props for such symbolism. Myra Janco Daniels calls automobile advertisements »the first fully Americanized fertility rites,« wondering wryly whether the final act of love will be between boy and auto, girl and auto, or attain the ultimate in some kind of intercourse among the three.
The image of woman in advertising is as much defined by the ads that omit her as those that exploit her. Business executives and doctors, for example, are always men. Even the language is male-oriented, like General Electric's »Men Helping Man« on an ad that discusses the development of nuclear power plants.
Advertising did not create these images about women, but it is a powerful force for their reinforcement. It legitimizes the idealized, stereotyped roles of woman as temptress, wife, mother, and sex object, and portrays women as less intelligent and more dependent than men. It makes women believe that their chief role is to please men and that their fulfillment will be as wives, mothers, and homemakers. It makes women feel unfeminine if they are not pretty enough and guilty if they do not spend most of their time in desperate attempts to imitate gourmet cooks and eighteenth-century scullery maids. It makes women believe that their own lives, talents, and interests ought to be secondary to the needs of their husbands, and families and that they are almost totally defined by these relationships.
It creates false, unreal images of women that reflect male fantasies rather than flesh and blood human beings. And the idealization of women is not much healthier than their derogation; goddesses are easily pulled off their pedestals and turned into temptresses and whores.
Advertising also reinforces men's concepts about women's place and women's role - and about their own roles. It makes masculine dominance legitimate - and conversely questions the manhood of men who do not want to go along with the stereotypes. Why is it masculine for men to wash cars, but a sign of »henpecking« for them to wash dishes? Why is it a man's job to be the breadwinner and a woman's to be the homemaker? Why do some men feel guilty when their wives work - as if it were a reflection on their own inadequacies? Advertising prolongs the myths of male supremacy, painting pictures of men who are superior to women and etching those images in the eyes of men who use these »eternal verities« as the excuse for forcing women's continued subjugation.
Male reactions to charges of sexism in advertising vary from defensive, »We didn't think that was degrading. ... It's a woman's role to care for the home,« to the coldly, consciously contemptuous, »all women are masochists.« »Insulting?« inquired William Judd, creative services manager for Parker Pen. »No, I would have to say that I don't recall that question coming up.« He did get about ten letters complaining about the »Give her a gorgeous pen« ad; he noted parenthetically that the ad was aimed at men. »It was a surprise to us that anyone felt that strongly about it. We still don't feel that this ad in any way was degrading at all. You'd have to have a pretty thin skin to go away with that attitude.« The reaction from Dictaphone (»the dumb blonde test«) was the same: »It's just an expression - everybody took it in good fun.« They did get a few protesting calls and letters.
Not a surprising response when one considers what businessmen seem to think about the American woman's intelligence. Here is the conclusion of a survey of the average housewife done by Haug Associates, Los Angeles, California and printed in Ad Age:

  • She likes to watch television and she does not enjoy reading a great deal. She is most easily reached through television and the simple, down-to-earth magazines. She finds her satisfaction within a rather small world and the center of this world is her home.
  • She has little interest or skill to explore, to probe into things for herself. Her energy is largely consumed in day-to-day living. She is very much open to suggestion and amenable to guidance that is presented in terms that fit in with   her   needs   and   with   her   view   of   the   world.
  • She tends to have a negative or anti-conceptual way of thinking. Mental activity is arduous for her. Her ability for inference particularly in unfamiliar areas is limited. And   she   tends   to   experience   discomfort   and   confusion when faced with ambiguity or too many alternatives. . . . She is a person who wants to have things she can believe in with certainty, rather than things she has to think about.

Needless to say, this somewhat moronic average American housewife trusts securely in name brands that are widely advertised.
Most of the people who make decisions about advertising are men. The satirical interview with the mythical »sixteen-year-old president of J. Walter Thompson,« written by Gordon Webber, vice-president of Benton & Bowles, probably is more fact than fancy when it comes to describing those men's attitudes toward women.

  • Q: What do you think about women's role during the last decade?
  • A: Women are  irrelevant - except,  of course, my mother.
  • Q: But don't you think women have grown in prestige and power during the 70's?
  • A: Yes, I guess you might say that. Mary Wells has her own agency, Golda Meir has her own country. And my mother has me.

Enough said.
Women in advertising generally agree on the genesis of sexist advertising. According to Frankie Cadwell.

Most men in advertising think of women as having low intelligence. They believe that across the country, women are really children. You can't say anything too fancy to them. Conversations with doves in kitchens, giants coming out of washing machines, crowns magically appearing on heads when a certain margarine is used. Even the caliber of daytime television soap operas doesn't approach the idiocy of commercials. I think it's a security thing - they want to think of woman as having very few interests - that her life really does begin and end with clean floors. You could substitute women for mentally-retarded, and they say, »It sells, doesn't it?« That is their principal argument. That this low level fantasy sells. They always show a woman in the kitchen so they always show a woman in the kitchen. They want that same old stuff because it worked the last time.

Diana Gartner, vice president for research at Daniel & Charles, concurs, »Why do they do it? Because it works.« But she says advertising men avoid the notion that the current images may be stereotyping and demeaning and that other approaches would work as well or better:

Caroline Bird spoke on the marketing implications of women's changing role at the International Congress of the American Marketing Association in April 1970. The resistance was tremendous - the men, who represented manufacturers, ad agencies and marketing research houses, made fun of what she was talking about; they said it was all ridiculous.
Now it's a matter of opinion, because we don't have the data. They say this is what turns Mrs. America on. They are so convinced that they're right, they don't see any point in investing money to do research on how women react to the stereotypes. I suggested to my boss that we hold a conference in New York on women's liberation and its implications for marketing. It was set up - then the Board of Directors of the A.M.A. chapter here vetoed the program. That's not objective; that's emotional.

Marketing research is based on testing advertisements through methods like surveys, group interviews (called »focus« groups), and trial runs in selected cities. But Diana Gartner says copy-testing techniques have bias built into them. »They assume that anything showing a woman getting a man's praise or attention is automatically motivating. It's a firmly established principle.« The same motivation and reward exists for the housewife, Mrs. Gartner notes:

I recently had some focus group sessions and it was clear that the women wanted to say that they wanted products that would save time and energy. There was only a mention of doing something creative, but the man who conducted the session played on this theme more than the other. Instead of giving them conveniences to save time, they try to funnel the creative urge back into the household scene. The motivation is, »You can fulfill your duties and responsibilities to your family.« They won't play on a woman's own needs, they play on her guilt. And there's a lot of guilt around. After all, a woman's husband is doing the important work, bringing home the money and winning recognition from the world outside. She is merely housecleaning, cooking, and sending the kids off to school -  work which commands so little regard that she is not paid a salary for it or recognized as more than »just a housewife.« She knows her husband is making the most valuable contribution to the family - the least she can do is perform her meager tasks adequately by whipping up gourmet meals and ironing her husband's socks and underwear.

Mrs. Gartner recalled another focus group that centered on a completely prepackaged meal. In answer to prodding from the questioner, one woman finally laughed and said, »Maybe I should feel guilty.« »When men do the interviews,« says Mrs. Gartner, »they are more likely to want women to live up to these expectations. And it's such an emotional area, a woman's identity is so tied up with this, that women are almost afraid to admit to themselves, much less to an interviewer, that the sex role stereotypes bother them.«


Stickers with those messages are proclaiming the feminist protest against degrading advertising on buses, subways, and wall posters throughout the country. The National Organization for Women has devised »The Barefoot and Pregnant Award of the Week for Advertising Degrading to Women.« At the national convention in March, 1970, the organization vowed to take action against companies who refused to eliminate objectionable ads. Throughout the movement, feminist magazines and newspapers are focusing on sexist advertising and urging others to boycott products where commercials demean or exploit.
Feminists are sensitive to sexist advertising because of their increased consciousness about the stereotyped role of women in society. And the humiliating images of women in the ads work to increase feminist consciousness and resentment of their status. However, protest is not limited to the adherents of women's liberation. Advertising professionals are also speaking out to their colleagues and to the industry.
»The Lady of the House is dead,« proclaimed a full page in Ad Age. Frankie Cadwell placed that ad to serve notice on Madison Avenue that:

The notion that women are hysterical creatures with inferior intellects that respond best to tales of Aladdin-like giants and magical clowns is horrendously insulting. When over 55% of the women in the country are high school graduates and 25% have attended colleges . . . aren't they beyond »house-i-toss«? At the very least women deserve recognition as being in full possession of their faculties.

»The Revolution is ready,« she warned them, »and one of women's first targets will be to rebel against moronic, insulting advertising.« She predicted that consumer boycotts might be the result, and she offered copies of a list of the »Ten Brands Whose Advertising Women Hate Most« gleaned from the Disneyland survey she conducted. The research team interviewed some 600 women age eighteen and over from all parts of the country. The vote was limited to television advertising, with cigarettes excluded because of the possible negative effects of antismoking campaigns. Right Guard Deodorant had the distinction of being disliked by over fifty participants. The others in the top ten were: Axion Pre-Soak, Ultra Brite Toothpaste, Crest Toothpaste, Bold Detergent, Dove Dishwashing Liquid, Colgate 100 Mouthwash, Punch Detergent, Ajax Liquid Cleaner, and Scope Mouthwash.
Jane Trahey, president of Trahey-Wolf, turned around traditional advertising patterns. One copywriter assigned to do a watch advertisement proposed showing a man waiting outside a phone booth and tapping impatiently on his watch as the stereotyped »talkative woman« engaged in protracted conversation inside. »I'm making him do it the other way around,« she grinned. She points out the most ludicrous lapses of the creative imagination in an occasional column for Ad Age. One focused on a TV spot about Mr. Clean that

. . . shows a woman who has gone quite bonkers over her dining room table waxing job. She sits at one end of the table and rubs it lovingly. If her husband found her this way, he most certainly would either return her to her mother or, if he were kind, suggest a shrink.

Ad Age's letters to the editor sporadically present protests from others in the trade, even men, like one from Alfred McCrea, president of his own Philadelphia agency. He protests the »bitchy« image of women in soap and detergent commercials:

  • It seems that all of them depict the average housewife as a nasty, sneering individual making caustic remarks to or about her neighbor just because she doesn't use a certain brand of soap. Maybe the product could be put to better use washing out the mouths of some of these people.

Another male-run agency decided to explore the feminist viewpoint on advertising in a project proposed by two women in its research department. Batten, Barton, Durstine & Osborne - the agency that created the Silva Thins commercial - invited eleven women to participate in a focus group about what they considered degrading to women in advertising. I was a member of the group. The session was videotaped and shown to agency executives. »It blew their minds,« says Diane Daley, who organized the project with Ellen Levy. They ran another group to expand their findings. Daley's report to BBD&O summed up everything feminists there and elsewhere have been saying: women do not like ads that either blatantly exploit and insult them or reinforce the sex-role stereotypes.
I made a few suggestions that I hope the BBD&O executives and others will take up. For example, why not an ad showing men and women rushing out to work after leaving the dishes soaking in some wonderful pink liquid that eats away the grease while they are poring over their accounts? Or stumbling home wearily from the office, throwing their briefcases on the table, and exuding praise for some jiffy convenience food that lets them eat without an hour's preparation?
Or this for an anti-discrimination public service spot: a woman sits behind an executive desk with a man beside her taking dictation. The underline: »What is wrong with this picture?« The answer: »Absolutely nothing!«
There are some companies that already see women outside the stereotyped roles. National Life Insurance of Vermont has an ad showing a woman sitting before a microscope. »She's working to make your life better,« says the ad. »She's a biochemist. . . . The same motivation drives our agents in serving your life insurance needs.«
And Sanitone Drycleaners ran a series showing successful women - a sales vice president, a lawyer, an advertising manager and the like. Yet half the people in that series were executive secretaries and assistants, a trenchant comment on the relative status of even »successful« women.
How can women get other companies to change? »Boycotts,« answer the ad women in unison. Women are 85 percent of the retail market; they could end degrading advertising tomorrow if they refused to buy products that use such methods. Even written complaints to companies would have an effect.
No matter what method is used to accomplish it, changing sexist advertising is prominent on the feminist agenda.
However, the new feminist attacks on advertising have revealed a curious phenomenon. I have said that advertising does not create sex-role stereotypes, it only reflects them; it acts on how people consciously perceive their roles so that it can win identification with its message. It exploits  existing insecurities  and  guilts.  As feminist consciousness increases, the advertising that crystallizes and mirrors the sex-role stereotypes makes those stereotypes and attitudes more blatant and odious and helps women see them more clearly. Advertising reflects and magnifies the prevalent image of women and makes it clear how limiting and oppressive their accepted roles  are.   (Even masochistic   Silva   Thins   commercials   may   have   some therapeutic value.) And advertising presents a focus and a target for the destruction of those images. For women who are made aware of the stereotypes, advertising is a permanent consciousness-raising mechanism, constantly reminding them of their position in American life, constantly dredging up insulting and demeaning images that anger them and make them reflect upon the condition of all women today.
When women claim that they are insulted by ads that portray women as housekeepers or sex objects, they are protesting the fact that society views women as such and that most women are condemned to exist within the confines of those roles. When women reject ads that give beautiful women »male rewards,« they are protesting the culture that requires women to be beautiful and that sets up a man as the ultimate prize. When women resent ads that show them only as stewardesses or secretaries, they are showing their anger at the system that countenances rampant discrimination against women in virtually all areas of employment and at the unspoken assumption that they lack the talents or intelligence to do the jobs men control.
Ironically, it may be the ludicrous and humiliating exaggerations of advertising itself that force some women to confront the reality of their subservient position and lead them to demand the changes that will bring them a new humanity and liberation.