Advertising shapes our worldviews in drastic, yet subtle, ways.
“You mean a woman can open it?” reads the tagline of a 1953 advertisement produced by Alcoa Aluminum promoting its HyTop twist-off bottle caps.
The ad features a woman in red lipstick looking at the reader while holding a Del Monte ketchup bottle and looking amazed at being able to open the bottle. The article that follows starts with, “Easily — without a knife blade, a bottle opener, or even a husband!”
Looking at it today, we can point out the blatant sexism in this ad; it has received a lot of backlash from 21st century critics. The implication that women cannot open bottles is outrageous considering only a few years prior to the advertisement, women — both at home and abroad — were involved in the Second World War. It might have been exaggerated, but it is a representation of the social perceptions and ideas of the time.
The fact that we can now identify this stereotyping shows that we have grown from those stereotypes. The media no longer overtly display women as helpless little creatures waiting for a man to save them.
That, however, does not mean commercials no longer depict gender‑related stereotypes. Advertisements now have subtler hints of sexism.
Furthermore, the ideas represented are usually rooted in our mindsets and might not always be visible.
Video games and construction toys are advertised almost exclusively to boys; these items are displayed as tough, adventurous and powerful.
On the other hand, dolls are advertised mostly to girls and paired with beauty and attractiveness. Only recently have we started questioning these ideas.
A more widespread phenomenon in advertising is sexualization of women and, increasingly, men. Whether it be a commercial for beer, chocolate or cars, it has become usual to see a scantily clad female or a shirtless male endorsing it.
Sexualization is most prevalent in beauty-related products. The idea of thin, “beautiful” women with “clear” skin and a “pleasant” fragrance has made room for hundreds of slimming products, skin cleansers, make up items and perfumes.
The notion of having to be “manly” is abundantly advertised, and with that comes advertisements for protein supplements, hair styling products and cologne that makes angels fall from heaven.
These commercials usually have a distinct “for men” theme.
In some places, fairness products targeted specifically at men have become a part of the culture.
Gender-specific advertising strengthens existing notions and creates grounds for the establishment of further misconceptions about people of that gender, just like the Alcoa Aluminum ad of 1953 expressed the notion of a weak woman.
Berating the advertisers, however, rarely helps resolve the issue. Advertisers are concerned more with making their products appealing to their target groups and less with the social implications.
When we see advertisements depicting a non-stereotypical image of a man or a woman, it is because that person, event or idea is gaining popularity within the public.
We cannot ignore the fact that advertisements catering to a specific gender create misconceptions and unhealthy ideas, especially in children and young adults.
Simply being aware of this can shield one from being swayed. Reporting or complaining about absolutely harmful ads is always a good idea.
However, since most advertisements have ambiguous means of representing these ideas, we might not be able to do so.
Furthermore, reporting each and every ad is not practical.
A more practical approach would be increasing awareness among consumers. This can be as small scale as parents showing their children how certain commercials misrepresent reality and as large scale as having school and community programs about being attentive consumers.