When creating an ad, it might seem like a good idea to take advantage of human sexuality. Some advertisers may even believe it’s funny to play on the stereotypes that typically surround women (ditzy, housewife, etc.), but oversexualizing and stereotyping women is an antiquated trend that should be left in the past, and here’s why:
Not only are these kinds of ads offensive and infuriating, ads today can easily go viral for the wrong reasons. (To read more about ads that have gone viral in the past, see our post here: Five Ad Campaigns That Went Viral – For Better or Worse.) Not all publicity is good publicity, and sometimes, backlash can be enough to seriously damage a brand’s reputation and bottom line. Apart from a myopic, economic analysis of why you shouldn’t create offensive ads, there is a moral grounds for putting a stop to this type of content: women are more than sexual objects or minor characters, and they should be portrayed as such in media, including advertising.
This type of advertising is far too common
Some ad campaigns tend to go for blatant sexuality, and many household names are guilty of launching such campaigns. Doritos, GoDaddy, Carl’s Jr., Axe, Calvin Klein, pretty much every beer company… they’ve all shown scantily clad women in different situations in order to evoke a laugh or to sell more products. That’s not what speaks to women, though; this type of advertising obviously only speaks to (some) men. By creating offensive, overly sexualized ads, an entire audience—and half the population—is isolated. No woman wants to watch a naked woman lounging in bed covered in Doritos or catering to beer-guzzling men – this is offensive and uncalled for. In 2015, Carl’s Jr. released an ad featuring supermodel Charlotte McKinney walking seemingly nude through a farmer’s market. The ad got a lot of backlash and prompted the hashtag #WomenAreMoreThanMeat. Carl’s Jr. spoke out defending their ad and said that it “gets people talking and isn’t more than what someone would see at the beach” and that it “gets right up to the line without crossing it”. This is a poor excuse.
The idea that a brand would rather sell exclusively to men than actually accommodate both men and women is frustrating. Women eat burgers, women eat chips, and women build websites, so marketing should cater to them as well. Otherwise, brands are limiting themselves. Even if women aren’t the primary target audience for a particular product or service, they still have to view the campaigns, and people’s opinions about women are influenced by such campaigns. We need to consider that media influences culture- and advertising is a large part of media.
This type of advertising perpetuates negative stereotypes
This is about more than just making women uncomfortable, though. It’s perpetuating the idea that women serve one purpose – and that purpose is sex and reproduction. Women are valuable members of society for many reasons that don’t pertain to sexuality. Take a 2016 Calvin Klein billboard, for example.
This billboard in SoHo told everyone who saw it that women seduce and men make money. (Most) people do literally everything in underwear, so the fact that the female actor and model featured in this ad is reduced to “seducing” when she clearly also makes money is just disrespectful. Not only do the captions perpetuate the idea that men are moneymakers and women are sex objects, but even the way Kristin is positioned is overtly sexual, while Fetty Wap just…gets a nice headshot. Calvin Klein ultimately took the billboard down after Heidi Zak, CEO of lingerie brand ThirdLove, started a petition calling for its removal, according to HuffPost.
But my brand exclusively targets men…
What about brands whose target audience is exclusively men? One such company that has created quite a few egregiously sexist ads is Axe, the men’s body wash and fragrance company. In 2011, Axe released an ad appropriately named “Billions” that showed, well, billions of women literally swimming across the ocean and sprinting over rocky terrain (in string bikinis, no less) to reach a single man spraying Axe all over himself. Sure, the ad was for men, but women still see it – and men still form their opinions of women around it.
In 2013, another Axe commercial basically stated that women were “getting hotter” and that it was a “crisis” because men were starting to walk into each other, get into car accidents, and even cause laboratory explosions because they were distracted by attractive women. Not only does this insult women, but it also paints men in a negative light. This ad blames men’s bad behavior on women, equates a woman’s value to her attractiveness, and depicts men as animals who can’t control themselves. There’s plenty of sexism to go around in this one.
Sexism goes beyond sex
Just because an ad doesn’t have half-naked women doesn’t mean it isn’t sexist. Some ads also play into the homemaker/housewife stereotype or play up the idea that all women need to be pampered with spa treatments and shopping sprees. A 2017 commercial for Dutch shoe company Bianco expressed that equal pay isn’t enough, and women actually need more than their fair share because it’s simply more expensive to be a woman. The ad shows three different women throwing temper tantrums in slow motion while wearing excellent shoes, while the narrator explains that haircuts and underwear are more expensive for women, and women have to wear a new outfit for every occasion. Not only does this play into the stereotype that women care only about their appearance, but it also, once again, equates a woman’s value with how attractive and stylish she is, all while undermining the battle for equal pay. Even though all of the women in this ad are dressed in work attire, it does nothing to support women and turns their cause into a joke.
You can do better – take these brands for example
So, what’s the proper response to this? Budweiser has actually taken an excellent stance on sexist ads by revamping their vintage ads to better reflect the modern woman.
The original ad on the left ran in 1962, and it shows a woman catering to her husband after cooking dinner for him, and encourages the man to “loosen his tie” and enjoy a Budweiser. The new ad, however, shows a woman about to relax with some takeout, her dog, and a beer. The campaign was released on International Women’s Day and ran in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and the Los Angeles Times. Two other ads similar to this one were run, placing old ads next to their modernized counterparts.
As exemplified by Budweiser, a beer company (and beer companies are traditionally some of the worst offenders when it comes to sexist ads), it’s really not that difficult to come up with inclusive ads that portray women as independent people who participate in society apart from their husbands, children, and sexuality.
Another beer company, this time Brazilian brewer Skol, set a great example in 2017 when it asked six female illustrators to redesign past (and disgustingly sexual) beer ads. According to AdWeek, the company released a commercial entitled “Reposter” which showed old ads being torn up and featured the artists at work as they explained why they took on the challenge of modernizing these outdated ads. One of the artists, Criola, says she took the role because “it’s important to deconstruct stereotypes [and] perceived notions,” while another artist, Elisa Arruda, says that “one thing I wanted to do was take the woman away from the role of the person serving the beer.” This shows that women really don’t like being portrayed in such a sexualized way, as each of the new posters covers up the scantily clad women and turns them into your everyday, beer-drinking women. (And seriously, who buys a backless skirt?)
If these brands can do better, so can you
If beer companies are stepping up to the plate and creating ads that don’t objectify women, then what’s stopping other companies with traditionally better track records from doing the same? Even if ads created in the past have been unsavory, brands can clearly still turn things around and create content that women actually want to see. Times are changing, and it’s time brands start revamping the way they advertise – even if their target audience largely consists of men. Women still have to see the ads, and it’s obvious women don’t want to see other women sexualized. It’s time to grow up, take responsibility for our actions, and set a positive example for future generations.
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