The Advertising Industry: Where Discourse and Feminism Fall into Conflict

The advertising industry is one of the most important industries which intervene in our personal lives. It has the power to influence individuals consciously and subconsciously. It’s every type of content we face on a daily basis: copy, images, videos, and have evolved to be a crucial part of the marketplace. What makes an advertisement dangerous is that it is paid for, which gives the creator complete control over the content and the message. The goal of content in advertising is to change the customer’s perception in many ways. And one of them is glorifying the picture of the world. The picture of us, who belong to that same world. 

Women have taken a big part in how the advertising industry would use them as a tool to engage customers. And so the portrayal of women was shaped to fit in a mold made of stereotypes and prejudice. Multiple studies showed that women were portrayed as sex objects to induce a sexual appeal in the advertisement. Whether the focus is on their body parts, or on sexual appealing behaviors. Not only that, women were widely portrayed in various roles based again on stereotypes, and they are listed as follows: 

  • A status in which they are confined in their homes as housewives.
  • A status in which they are advertising for products related to beauty and cosmetics.
  • A status in which they are defined in ownership roles (mothers, daughters, etc.) 
  • A status in which they are submissive and dependent on men.
  • A status in which they appear smaller in size than men.
  • A status in which their attributes are passive (soft, weak, shy, etc.)

The portrayal of women in advertising not only goes against the socio-cultural change in society in the context of the position of women. But it contributes to creating a patriarchal marketplace. It’s redefining universal discourse regarding women and it’s heavily influencing societal behavior. Based on Social Learning theory, individuals learn by observing and mimicking. So when the advertisements keep promoting sexist scenes and encouraging aggressive and belittling attitudes toward women. It results in individuals acquiring the same behaviors in a way that spreads even wider and gains popularity within societies. Instead of repairing the issues of our cultural stereotypes, advertising is taking advantage of it. It’s using a flawed system to increase sales when it could be contributing to making a change. 

In this article, we will proceed to prove that it is not only unethical but no more efficient for the advertising industry to pathetically feed off male supremacy in order to make a profit. 

With the continuous improvement in the purchasing power of women and the importance of women in the economy, the advertisements started to depict women in stronger roles and positions (Teng et al., 2020). The negative portrayals of women affect their willingness to buy and may even call for boycotts of the advertised products. 

And if you think about it, advertising is all about relating to the customer. However, it still does seem to neglect that women are no longer trapped in their domestic roles, and are now taking a big part in the professional environment. They’re also decision-makers and have enough power to judge a negative or a positive advertisement. So if it is to portray a woman as weak or submissive, it risks a backlash from the audience. There have been multiple instances where advertisements have been banned due to huge criticism from people. Some of the examples include: an advertisement from Philadelphia cream cheese depicting that only women can take care of children (2019) and a Volkswagen eGolf advertisement where women were shown in a passive role while men were shown in adventurous positions (2019). Both advertisements were banned by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) as they depicted women in stereotypical roles. Studies show that men also make positive purchasing decisions when they find women in confident roles, carrying the burden of responsibility with men equally. 

It’s time that the advertising industry wakes up to realize that it is time to design campaigns that portray women positively and empower them instead of subjugating them. 

Enhancing the chance of an equal society through advertising not only is ethical but also increases brands’ favorability, thus more chances of making a profit. Advertisements should be viewed as the point of intersection and agreement between the ideology of feminism and discourse. Showcasing the opposite from now on would only be a losing situation.


References

Pooja Chatley, Portrayal of Women in Advertising. impact: international journal of research in humanities, arts and literature (impact: ijrhal) issn (p): 2347-4564; issn (e): 2321-8878 vol. 6, issue 7, jul 2018, 15-18 

Sharma, Sangeeta and Bumb, Arpan (2021). Role Portrayal of Women in Advertising: An Empirical Study. Journal of International Women’s Studies, 22(9), 236-255.

Victoria E. Drake, The Impact of Female Empowerment in Advertising (Femvertising) : Journal of Research in Marketing Volume 7 No.3 August 2017. 


Rim Hajjoui is a Master’s student with a major in Marketing who’s passionate about breathing life into brands. Driven not so much by profit as by societal needs, she developed an interest in social innovation as it is the key for the private sector to contribute to solving modern-day issues. She also has a strong taste for civic and youth engagement. Concerned about gender inequality from an early age. She’s committed to high-quality research regarding intersectional feminism, inclusion, and sustainable development. She joined Politics4Her because she believes that women’s inclusion in politics is crucial for a better society. 

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