Women in Advertising: Then and Now

For the past few weeks, I’ve seen this link for the 15 Sexist Vintage Ads floating around cyberspace, shared among Facebook friends and highlighted on humor and culture blogs. It takes you to a web site that showcases 15 “sexist” ads from the early and mid-twentieth century. With overtly sexist tag lines like “The harder a wife works the cuter she looks,” “Blow in her face and she’ll follow you anywhere,” and “Men are better than women,” these ads look different from what we’re used to seeing today.

Or do they?

Take a closer look.

In this first group, notice the vintage ad’s placement of the women’s lips and the lipstick. Then notice the similarities to the modern ad. Both ads portray the sexualization of women.

Then and Now

In this next group, notice how both ads portray women as less than human.

Then and Now

In this last group, notice what both ads insinuate — that women are dumb, or should strive to be so.

Then and Now

In both worlds, decades apart, women are portrayed the same: as unintelligent, as submissive, as sexual fiends, and as objects.

Sure, the vintage ads are a little different. Advertisements today don’t have blatant, wordy warnings, stating that if women don’t smell good or feel soft, they risk having their husbands literally not come home that night. But look around. Look at fashion magazines, billboards and TV commercials. The overall message of nearly every single ad is that we women are imperfect and need to strive to keep a man’s attention.

Advertisements — those from 1949 and 2009 — never let us forget that a woman is judged only on the basis of her appeal to men.

And even though we don’t see sexism spelled out, as in the vintage ad that reads, “Men ask ‘is she pretty?’ not ‘is she clever?’ ” we see that sexism when ads continually warn us to slim down, whiten teeth, curl hair, smell better, shave, primp, yet never to — get this — be strong, brave, intelligent, and powerful. In the twenty-first century, women are absolutely still being told to be pretty. Forget clever.

Then and Now

Also, notice the disconnect in the ad on the left: How is spanking a woman at all related to selling coffee?, you might be asking. But I would ask the same thing today of the ad on the right: How is a naked, faceless woman at all related to electronics?!

Furthermore, these vintage ads are nowhere near as sexually explicit as ones today. These ads don’t feature extreme closeups of women’s breasts, butts, and unrealistic and unattainable body images, all to sell a product and make girls feel ashamed. Ads back then may have been sexist, but ads now are sexist and sexually explicit.

So before you pass the 15 Sexist Vintage Ads link onto your friends, laughing at how much things have changed, think again. Have they?

Let us know what you think, About-Face blog readers. Go through the vintage ad web site and About-Face’s Gallery of Offenders to find similarities and differences yourself. Leave your findings and thoughts in the comments.


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