Blatant Sexism in Advertising: Still a Thing for Some Reason?

Sexism has been inherent in the foundation of advertising since the first implication that a woman’s worth and happiness was linked to her appearance. Artifacts of this institutional prejudice’s place in advertising span the length of the industry’s history, and make up a bulk of the evidence presented by activists and historians to illustrate the toxic attitudes of past generations. The impact of advertising’s intentions has shaped cultural attitudes across the planet, and the footprint created by their irresponsible tendencies to shame and label women has been felt for years. This phenomenon has happened for so long and in so many forms that some would say we’re in a much better place compared to older days, but hard sexism persists in this platform still, hiding among the billions of advertisements we take in every day, in forms ranging from nearly blatant misogyny to covert prejudice.

I have spent four years studying marketing at Emerson, but the purpose of the advertising industry’s reliance on sexism, misogyny, and male fantasy has consistently eluded my understanding. Advertising is an industry of reaching out to the greater public and trying to pull in as many consumers into your audience as you can succeed in doing. To act in a way that disregards or disrespects over 50% of the earth’s population, in an attempt to somehow appeal to a much, much smaller proportion of persons is ludicrous, lazy and overall demonstrative of a brand’s unsympathetic understanding of their consumer. So why are brands still participating in glorifying women as sexual objects, stay-at-home moms, or prizes for men to win by buying the right cologne?

A large part of what I believe the problem to be is a lack of larger discourse on the subject of positive portrayal of women when it comes to the advertising world. Other forms of media that have had these issues of awful misogyny in the past, like television and film, have been able to minimize the sexism within their industry, largely due to a strong culture of self-reflection and consumer feedback within the community, who’s primary goal as an industry is to constantly be writing better characters and stories to appeal to their widest audience. Advertising does not have the same culture; it does not have a strong community that passionately maintains a discourse over subjects like positive representation, and more often than not, critiques of negative work in this industry will be washed over quickly because of how briefly an ad can exist within the minds of a consumer.

Because of the individual longevity of even national television spots, bad ads are able to swiftly cycle out of a public spotlight and straight along into the consumer’s inert memory within hardly more than week. While a hit film can occupy our eyes and think-pieces for several months, or while a controversial series stays relevant over and over again each week of a new season, controversial ads can be forgotten as soon as an apology is made and the ad is pulled from its spot.

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This quality of cultural brevity seems to be what has kept its more sexist institutions safe from deep scrutiny. Sprite’s #BrutallyRefreshing campaign in Ireland, which incoherently made inflammatory statements about sexually active women as a way to push Sprite and Sprite Zero (if this doesn’t seem to make sense to you, welcome to the team), was able to dodge much of its potential criticisms by quickly pulling its spots as soon as an outcry began, and what could’ve been an enlightening conversation on advertising’s role in modern culture’s toxic practice of “slut-shaming” died out with that small audience that experienced it at the time, before it was forgotten completely. Despite seemingly allowing sexist rhetoric to represent their products, Sprite and Coca-Cola remain free of criticism, as if retracting these sexist ads absolves them of explanation or consequence. This is a huge problem. As best as I can see, we are allowing the brands that populate our television to showcase blatant sexism, and we are doing this because, however mad we can get in the moment, we habitually taper off as these ads disappear and we find ourselves forgetting what we were mad about. It is this complacency that allows these harmful ads to persist.

Advertising is just as guilty for its part in modern sexism as any other form of media, and it needs to be treated as such. We should all strive for better, from movies, television, print media, and the ads that are contained within them. To do so, we need to continue to scrutinize, discuss, reject, and hold accountable those ads that advance sexism and misogyny in the name of that which we consider to be “what sells”.

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