Sexist & Faux Feminist Advertising

Sexist & Faux Feminist Advertising

A Conflict Theory Perspective

Sexism is a pervasive and mutable form of prejudice and discrimination impacting women in a variety of ways, but perhaps the most impactful is constant bombardment of messages promoting sexist ideology through advertising. In accordance with conflict theory, advertising often works maintains and reinforces social inequality between men and women by promoting and reinforcing traditional or status quo thinking through messages embedded in media. These advertising messages indoctrinate women and men with the idea of women’s subservience to men by using women as sex objects and reflecting them in roles lacking equal status. Despite decades of research and education concerning these messages they continue to be present in the media and even take the form of faux-feminism.

The Second-Shift

While progress occurred and continues in many areas of society, the underlying messages of media continue to promote an idea of male superiority extending from the antiquated belief of men as heads of households. This idea benefits men not women. Despite being part of the workforce, women still face housework and many aspects of child rearing above their paid work, forming what is known as “second shift,” which is not a new problem. This issue can be seen clearly with women and advertising. In this Sunlight detergent advertisement the message sent clearly identifies the woman’s job or role to do the dishes and by not doing them she is somehow failing in her marriage.

Sexist & Faux Feminist Advertising

1987 Lever Brothers Company (Fair Use)

What is interesting is that this advertisement is from 1987, and when viewed, many are inclined to think the ad an outdated form of advertisement. Times change but often not the message as seen in this 2011, an advertisement for Joy dish detergent showed a woman wearing only plates.

Sexist & Faux Feminist Advertising

Still using laundry bars on your plates? You might as well wear them. (Fair Use)

This ad, originally published in June 2011, appeared in the Philippines and was intended to get consumers to use liquid detergent instead of laundry bars, but the sex appeal is obvious as well as the message that it is the woman’s job to do the dishes. Thus, reinforcing second-shift acceptability and inequality between sexes.

In some ways, this ad is worse as it conveys many messages about women beyond doing housework such as using the product makes a woman fashionable or that women need to a certain way, and this product somehow connects with that look. Advertising such as this reflects that women are sex objects and reinforces the idea that their looks are ultimately important.

The Sex Appeal Message

In the practice of advertising, women are often used to market products by adding sex appeal. This is common with advertising products intended for men. In this 2001 Rogaine commercial, there is no pretense made about the message for sex appeal and maintaining a relationship.


What message is this ad delivering to men about women? Perhaps that success with dating and relationships is driven mainly by vanity. As much as this commercial plays on men’s desires it also reinforces ideas that women are only attracted to men that look a certain way and women need to look a certain way.

Most advertisers do not bother to mask hide sexism in their marketing. In this advertisement, a woman is shown with obvious sex appeal to sell a tobacco. There can be no doubt of the sexism in this ad since men are the largest users of smokeless tobacco products.

Sexist & Faux Feminist Advertising4

Date: 2008 Brand: Skoal From Stanford University (Fair Use)

This is not merely a risqué advertisement but specifically fosters a stereotype of women being sex objects. The embedding of this thinking is obvious but what is less obvious is the message transmission to the intended audience of men. Notice the fishing equipment on the left of the picture intended to link the idea of sex with fishing, which is a male dominated recreational activity. Perhaps the most subtle but harmful message sent to young men is the idea that using women to sell products via sex is acceptable, thus reinforcing sexist ideas in young men. From a conflict perspective, one can see how this ad is used to exploit women as sexual objects.

The Impact of Sexist Advertising

There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that advertising communicates many messages that are sexist and harmful to women. In a study of western media, researchers found girls who watched western television in countries that previously lacked this form of media entertainment experienced increases in instances of anorexia and bulimia.

In Fiji, after American TV was first aired in 1995, researchers found that 74% of girls surveyed believed that they were too large or fat. The survey also showed that 15% of the girls reported taking part in binging and purging as a means of weight control. Prior to American TV, Fiji culture viewed physical beauty in terms of being robust and muscular. This study and impact of western media in Fiji shows how women are bombarded with messages about how they should look. It is by virtue of these messages women are stratified in society because they are constantly told how they should behave and how they should look. This keeps women trapped in their social position.

The Illusion of Progress (Faux Feminism)

Women are the victims of sexism in advertising in a variety of ways and the latest movement of companies showing support is misleading. Lean Cuisine came under fire in 2018 for its advertising campaign “It All” signifying “Women Can Have it All.” The campaign failed miserably due to women voicing their concerns for “Having It All” meant being conditioned to be thin and look a certain way.

The messages of ads are noticed much more today than in the past and gives rise to faux feminism which is roughly defined as paying lip service to gender equality in order to market to women. Sometimes these messages are seen clearly in the Lean Cuisine campaign but other times the messages are difficult to determine.

Audi’s advertisement strikes hard at gender equality but is the message authentic or a clever means of selling? Would the ad’s perspective be different if told from the mother-daughter perspective of the same narrative? Perhaps but at least the message has shifted towards a more open discussion of equality.


BBC 1999

Photo by Delia Giandeini on Unsplash

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