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Advertising To Women: A History Of Consistent Failure

Marketing to women

Women, as a whole, have a huge amount of spending power. In fact, it’s estimated that in typical families, 90% of the time women will be the ones in control of the purse strings. Financial control is almost entirely centered on women– yet modern adverts have yet to evolve to recognize this. It’s worth questioning why this is, and whether the future will be any different.

The sexist history of advertising

There’s no doubt that advertising has improved from what it once was. Take a look at this fantastic example of just how sexist adverts used to be:


Yes, women were once marketed to as if their only concern was their usefulness to the menfolk in their lives. A lifestyle was sold as much as a product. Some may say that times have clearly changed, and that should be sufficient, but is it?

Modern advertising standards

Nowadays, advertisers will try to directly target women. This sounds positive; a recognition of the female spending power in the populace. Yet somehow, advertisers keep missing the mark. How many of these cliché adverts sound familiar to you?

  • A woman is on her period, but she is blissfully happy. She’s rollerskating! She’s playing with her dog at the beach! She’s eating chocolate and spending time with friends! She’s living an amazing lifestyle that everyone should want! (All this despite the fact one in five women will find their lives severely infringed by period pain during menstruation.)
  • A woman wants to eat a food, but won’t do so unless announcing it’s a “guilty treat” or extolling the low calories. Food is usually discussed as if it’s something sinful, rather than just fuel for the human body.
  • When a woman is shown in financial adverts, she doesn’t just discuss how difficult she personally has found searching for personal loans for people with bad credit; she focuses on how finances impact her family and her children. Single, childless, or child-free women are never portrayed as being interested or concerned by personal finance.

These stereotypes are pervasive. They seem harmless, but they are really just updates on the old-fashioned ideas that women should be happy, slender, and focused on their benefit to others rather than themselves.

Why is this happening

In truth, there is no definitive way of knowing, but we do know that advertising is a male-dominated industry and women in advertising frequently struggle with sexual harassment. This lack of female voices in the creative section of advertising is undoubtedly contributing to the problem.

The future of adverts

Thanks to social media campaigns, sexist and gender-stereotyping adverts have become less and less acceptable. This is undoubtedly a good thing, and hopefully a step towards a better recognition of female purchasing power. Advertisers have to learn that women don’t need to be sold a “lifestyle”, because not every woman desires the same lifestyle – we just want the facts, and recognition of the fact that we’re our own people rather than characters who are defined by our use to others.

There are some promising signs, legislatively, that times may really be changed. The UK has recently passed legislation that banned gender stereotyping in ads; perhaps this could be the future for the rest of the world?

48 thoughts on “Advertising To Women: A History Of Consistent Failure”

  1. Thank you for the post…advertising reflects culture, and today some of the advertising almost looks phony as it tries to portray the way things ought to be…but aren’t.

  2. I sincerely hope so! It’s ridiculous how pervasive sexism is in the advertising with which we’re constantly bombarded.

  3. The workers in the sector of advertising need to get more conscious about, what audience are they feeding these advertisements to. Well, where there customer target maybe different, these ads for children can be conditioning.

  4. Insightful post! I’m curious to see what the results of the ban you mentioned will be because sometimes stereotyping is not obvious. I’m hopeful though that we’ve come to a point where many of us recognize this type of unethical marketing and will hold companies accountable in our purchase decisions.

  5. I support your opinion, however i reckon that if female purchasing power was recognized, wouldn’t market revolve around it without having to be claimed it by laws?

  6. I’m a guy and I notice the sexism is blatant. For example men are driving trucks and playing basketball with their sons while the women are inside doing laundry or cleaning. You need see a man cooking ( unless he is a chef) he doesn’t wash dishes, clean clothes or do any housework. I’m thinking to myself what century do these advertisers live? As a man, I would love to see a commercial where a man is taking care of the children and doing chores because that is the reality. Thank you for the post

  7. Right on, Christy!! 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼. It drives me up a tree, especially as a non-girly child-free female. I glare at the TV and say stuff like “what if we *don’t* have kids? What am I, useless chopped liver, or just a baby-making machine or something??” Lol 😊Bravo, dear one!! Your article is much-needed and refreshing 💖💜

  8. Oh yes Christy, a new order is on its way. Just look how far things have come in these past few months with men getting called out left and right, women standing up and speaking up. Things are changing, and it’s about time! <3

  9. The sexist advertisements from the 1950s and 60s probably had some of the worse-i can’t even believe they were really considered acceptable to promote. Great post!!

  10. Great article Christy. I agree that advertisers need to stop selling women a lifestyle. I think advertisers don’t want to sell the consumer be that women or man what they may want or need but to push their products on us making us feel like they are doing us a huge favour.

  11. Well, l believe there’s a lot to fight for, in women equality, but some women they have come a long way! :-)

    1. You are welcome!
      During my twelve years of practice I met a great deal of women very strong, and skilled in the Art. :-)

  12. Well, the time has come for women, but only in very few countries. Move over men, you need to make room!
    Still, that could get me killed in some places. Women are still marginalized on planet earth. Period.

  13. This is so true, Christy. I really don’t think about ads most of the time, but you’re absolutely right. Most of the commercials and paper ads out there are still biased. The only ones I can think of off the top of my head that really aren’t are the newish ones about women eating for fuel so we can live our lives. It’s high time we followed Britain and did something about sexist ads.

  14. This is interesting, Christy. On the one hand I agree that advertising still focuses on ultra thinness as being very desirable in women and this has unfortunate consequences for women in the form of anorexia and other eating disorders and general poor body image and confidence. On the other hand governmental interference in something like advertising is also restrictive and undesirable. On the whole, I think women should demonstrate their dislike for undesirable adverts themselves by not buying the products sold.

  15. Enlightening post. These commercials were sexist as was much during that time period.

    No one appeared to be bothered with Ricky Ricardo threatening Lucy (I Love Lucy) or
    Ralph Kramden threatening his wife with physical harm. People used to laugh at these things.

    Happy we have evolved (ewven though there is still quite a bit of evolving to do).

  16. Interesting article, Christy. I wonder how effective the legislation will be. Stereotyping seems so pervasive, it is hardly noticed. I think it needs to be recognised a lot more before anything will change. Sex still seems to be the biggest advertising “trick” – always targeted to men, of course. A new US hamburger chain has just opened up here flaunting very sexist slogans and advertising. Perhaps young men are their target market, but I don’t think such advertising should be acceptable.

  17. You make so many good points here. It seems like advertising directed at women (certainly here in the UK) is so often about instilling fear – fear of getting old, fear of getting fat, fear of being selfish if you don’t put your family’s needs first. By contrast, adverts for men are often about power – being powerful, being seen as powerful. I haven’t seen any men in TV adverts worrying about their faces showing “the signs of ageing” or stressing over how many calories are in a pot of yoghurt. Great post, thank you.

    1. The ads in the US are like that as well. Instilling fear in women and power for men. Very perceptive. The good news is that recognizing the problem is the first step toward combatting it. Even if the advertisers don’t change, if we are aware of their tactics, we can limit the result.

  18. “Every woman needs to be herself at times… Your answer “Baking”…
    Well … its seems ads nowadays seem to be still “baking-friendly”, according to that old recipe… ((…)) Despite the relative advances when it comes to ads and how women are depicted in them, they are often portraited from a derogatory point of view. Most times these days as objects of consumption … or as beings that consume consumer objects, mainly related to exterior Beauty … Social role of “mother”. Or object of masculine desire (very subtly, of course). Note that the recurring term is “object” (hence, comes “objectification”). I wonder how ads are in Iceland. I’ll see if I want something to quieten my doubts :) … Maybe flour could help, LOL. Excellent post, Chris xx :D

    1. PS: I found an ad you WILL like. (Interesting reversal of female-male roles in Iceland)
      From: Icelandair.
      Description “Adversity shapes us. Individuals. Nations. Teams. The Icelandic women’s national football team is headed to yet another European Championship, in the Netherlands. They’ve faced challenges on the way, been underdogs but perseverance and hard work makes dreams come true”.
      Released: May, 2017.

    2. Aqui! This ad is awesome :D Thank you for adding it here to give girls/women strength and know we CAN do what we set our minds to! In Iceland and elsewhere <3

  19. Interesting about the UK. I wonder how they’ll enforce that or manage it. Women are still quite sexualized in many ads too, although that has gotten better than it used to be.

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