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Advertising, Women and Beauty

Page history last edited by PBworks 15 years, 6 months ago
 The Prevalence of Advertising

Jean Kilbourne provides some fascinating statistics about the prevalence of advertising in our lives. The average American is exposed to over 3,000 ads every day; 70 percent of newspapers and 40 percent of mail is nothing but advertising (58-59). Advertising is everywhere and the mass media is the biggest vehicle for it.  This is because advertising pays for the majority of the mass media that we encounter. It pays for over 60 percent of magazine and newspaper production costs and nearly 100 percent of electronic media costs (Kilbourne 34-35).  “It is in fact the most important aspect of the mass media. It is the point” (Kilbourne 34). The ads do not have to be consciously received to be effective.  Kilbourne quotes Rance Crain of Advertising Age as saying, “Only eight percent of an ad’s message is received by the conscious mind; the rest is worked and reworked deep within the recesses of the brain, where a product’s positioning and repositioning takes shape” (59). An advertiser does not have to make a conscious impact on a consumer; all they have to do is make sure that the ad is seen and a person’s unconscious will do the rest.  Considering these facts, it is helpful to understand the impact that advertising has on people, particularly women.  Advertising bombards women with images that are unrealistic and also reinforces stereotypical ideas about women.  However, this is an issue that effects not only women but all Americans.  This is due to the proliferation of advertising, next time you are driving down the highway count the number of advertisments that you encounter.  Bumper stickers, billboards, and business signage are all advertising and chances are they will go by faster than you can keep count.  Remember that 92% of these ads will act on your unconscious mind.
 Reading Ads
It is helpful to have a basic concept about looking at ads before focusing on specific ads and their messages. When talking about advertising, the term “reading” is used generically to describe how people understand and respond to advertising (Stern 58).  In her essay “Advertisements as Women’s Texts”, Barbara Stern describes how the reading and perception of ads has changed over time. Prior to the early 1980’s, there was widespread belief by advertisers that there was one meaning or message to an ad.  Ads had a message and if the ads were properly constructed then the message would obvious. This was based on the idea that readers were passively receiving the information provided to them. Sometime in the early 80’s this perspective began to change as a deconstructionist view was applied to advertising. This means that there is not a “right” message to an ad. The message is interpreted differently by everyone based on their background and beliefs. Because of this, the reading of an advertisement began to be viewed as an active process.  Just as people can be influenced by reading a book, they can also be influenced reading an advertisment.  Advertisements have a voice that speaks to readers and that voice can be male centered called androcentric or it can female centered which is called gynocentric. This voice is determined in part by the product category, spokesperson and sex of the potential user (Stern 58).  An important step in reading advertising is to disregard everything and ask; what is being sold? This helps to focus the mind on two key parts of an ad, the product and the image associated with it. The product is not always apparent at first glance but it will appear somewhere in the ad.  After all, the purpose of advertising is to sell a product.   Now take a look at the images used in the ad. The images can be anything but they are sending a message to the consumer about the product.  Many times the image is first thing that is seen, which draws attention to the ad.  In many cases, the image has nothing to do with the product being sold.  Many of the issues that are raised about advertising center on these images. 
Messages in Advertising

Skip washing powder: Stain reversal technology, 3

Great American Volleyball: Aggie Yves Saint Laurent Opium

The image used in this ad for Skip laundry detergent serves two purposes.  First, by prominently featuring breasts attention is drawn to the ad.  Secondly, it reinforces the idea that laundry and the home is a womans domain.





This is an for a Volleyball Tournament. The image in this ad is used purely to draw attention.  Had the woman been shown playing volleyball it could be argued that the message was that women are good athletes and can compete with men.  Instead the image reinforces the idea that women are mainly sex objects and are easily injured.


This is an ad for a womens perfume called Opium.  An example of hyper-sexuality being used to sell a product; although in this case it is a woman's product so the effectiveness of the image is questionable.  The image does however, reinforce the idea that sexuality and beauty are essential.




These images are from Ads of the World. Copyright, 2008 Jupitermedia All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from http://www.internet.com.
Barbara Stern believes that most advertising has an androcentric message and is reinforcing the idea of male and female roles in life as well as perpetuating stereotypical ideas about women (60). This can be seen in the the way women appear in ads.  Ads for products used in the home often feature women, which reinforces the idea that a woman’s place is in the home. Ads for cosmetics and beauty products often use a beautiful model which emphasizes the importance of physical beauty.  In some cases a women is used simply as a sex object in order to draw attention to the ad.  All of these images send a message and there is a prevailing opinion that the messages sent to women through advertising are harmful and unfair.  Susan Douglas describes the message advertising sends to women as “be pliant, cute, sexually available, thin, blond, poreless, wrinkle-free, and deferential to men” (Douglas 9). Jean Kilbourne echoes this sentiment saying, “Primarily girls are told by advertisers that what is most important about them is their perfume, their clothing, their bodies and their beauty” (Kilbourne 132). Scientific analysis of the content of advertising supports these views. After analyzing and compiling information from multiple studies that looked at advertising from around the world, Courtney and Whipple reached the following conclusions: Advertising sends the message to women that “She has a pressing need for personal adornment to help her attract and hold a man (24).  And that “Women still view themselves and are viewed by others as sex objects” (14).   These messages are delivered by the way advertisers use women in ads. The images are generally very similar; the models are young, thin, wrinkle free, perfectly coiffed and above all beautiful. The problem lies in the fact that these standards are unrealistic and generally unobtainable. But after seeing the same images over and over they start to be seen as a reflection of reality. Once the perception of reality has been established then everything outside of that becomes abnormal.  By encouraging an unreasonable standard of beauty, advertisers encourage women to look at themselves critically. If they fail the self inspection they turn to the marketplace for help (Dobscha and Ozanne 247).  The perception that the marketplace can help is rooted in one of the core values of American culture.  Americans have this idea they can better themselves if they try hard enough.  This is echoed in advertising; consumers are told that if they purchase a certain product their lives will be improved; their wrinkles will be smaller or by losing weight they can find true love.    
Pantene: Brunette Hinds Anti-Age: Before Olympia Gym: Hope

This is a good example of how advertisers present unrealistic standards of beauty.  The product is Pantene shampoo, once again the image draws attention to the ad while the product is less obvious.  The message is clear; our shampoo will make you sexier.




This is ad appeals to the idea that a person can improve themselves if they try hard enough.  Additionally, it perpetuates the idea that there is something wrong with wrinkles or any evidence of aging.




An ad for a gym which is very clearly sending the message that only thin women are attractive and desirable.






These images are from Ads of the World. Copyright, 2008 Jupitermedia All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission from http://www.internet.com.
Inherent in the idea that the marketplace can improve life is the idea that life needs improvement; that there is something inherently wrong with having wrinkles or being overweight.  Beauty is seen as an achievement, a physical manifestation of hard work; if a woman can conquer flabby thighs then she can conquer anything (Douglas 261). The models that appear in ads are usually as close to perfection as nature and science can achieve. In many ways this focus on beauty is a denial of real life; because with living comes imperfection. Wrinkles, scars and stretch marks are a natural part of life. By denying their existence we are hiding the evidence of living. Susan Douglas says, “We have learned to despise the curves, bulges, stretch marks and wrinkles that mean  we’ve probably worked hard in and out of our homes, produced some fabulous children, enjoyed a good  meal or two, tossed back a few drinks, laughed cried, gotten sunburned more than once, endured countless indignities and, in general, led pretty full and varied lives” (12).  Dobscha and Ozanne point out that the quest for a perfect body is in some cases a denial of life. “We must be able to reveal beautiful midriffs so flat that they deny the existence of a womb and certainly make any evidence of childbirth invisible” (247).  A company that seems to have heard some of these complaints about advertising and unfair beauty stereotypes is Dove. Since 2004 they have used “real” women in ads for some their products. The company claims to be challenging beauty stereotypes that are present in advertising.  Click here for A Closer Look at the Campaign for Real Beauty
Joshua Fisher 12-9-08 
Further Reading

For some related issues involving women and American culture, take a look at these other Wiki sites: Barbie and American Women's Sexuality and Popular Music.

The area of women and advertising is an issue which has received a great deal of study. Both male and female authors have written copiously on this topic. For some interesting reading on these issues take a look at these books and websites.

  •  All of the books in the works cited section are highly recommended.
  • Ads of the World.com The source for all of the images on this page, has both print and TV ads from all over the world.
  • Gender Ads.com A very interesting site that thousands of ads sorted into dozens of catagories.  The side is maintained by a gender studies professor and has lots of good information and analysis.
  • Goffman, Erving. Gender Advertisements. Cambridge, MA. Harvard UP,1979.  Very interesting and in depth analysis of how women are shown in print advertising.
  • Moog, Carol. "Are They Selling Her Lips?": Advertising and Identity. New York: William and Morrow Co., 1990. Another good book about women and advertising.
  • Parkin, Katherine J. Food is Love: Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. This book analyzes food advertising and the how it has reinforced the idea that a woman's place is in the home. 



Works Cited


 Ads of the World.com. 2008. Jupiter Media Corporation. 03 December 2008 <http://adsoftheworld.com/>.

Dobscha, Susan, and Julie L. Ozanne. “Marketing and the Divided Self: Healing the Nature/Woman Separation.” Marketing and Feminism: Current Issues and Research. Ed. Miriam Catterall and Pauline Maclaren and Lorna Stevens. New York: Routledge, 2000. 239-254.


Douglas, Susan J. Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female With The Mass Media. New York: Three Rivers Press, 1995.

Kilbourne, Jean. Deadly Persuasion: Why Woman and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising. New York: The Free Press, 1999.


Stern, Barbara B. “Advertisements as Women’s Texts: A Feminist Overview.” Marketing and Feminism: Current Issues and Research. Ed.Miriam Catterall and Pauline Maclaren and Lorna Stevens. New York: Rutledge, 2000. 57-74.


Courtney, Alice E., and Thomas W. Wipple. Sex Stereotyping in Advertising. Lexington: LexingtonBooks, 1983.

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