“Feminine odor is everyone’s problem,” proclaims an ad for a feminine hygiene spray. “If your hair isn’t beautiful, the rest hardly matters” (an ad for shampoo). “My boyfriend told me he loved me for my mind. I was never so insulted in my life” (cigarettes!).
These ads are some of the earliest in the collection I started in 1968, the year I began studying the image of women in advertising. The examples used in the first version of my documentary film “Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women” (made in 1979 and remade three times since) seem ludicrous by today’s standards. One ad touts a deodorant that is “Made for a woman’s extra feelings” (presumably located in her armpits). A woman in a diet ad exults, “I’d probably never be married now if I hadn’t lost 49 pounds.” (In one audience, a woman shouted out, “The best advertisement for fat I’ve ever seen.”)
It’s easy to laugh at these ads and to believe that we’ve made progress. If only it were true. Certainly we no longer see as many demented housewives pathologically obsessed with cleanliness (these days it’s more likely to be antibacterial products), and we see in current ads many more women in the workplace and some (but not enough) men caring for children and even doing domestic chores without screwing them up.
In many ways, however, things have gotten worse. The ideal image of beauty is more tyrannical than ever. Even little children are increasingly sexualized in advertising and throughout the popular culture. Girls get the message very early on that they must be hot and sexy in addition to being flawlessly beautiful and impossibly thin. Women’s bodies are still used to sell everything from shampoo to chain saws, and are often dismembered into parts—breasts, legs, buttocks. Sometimes a woman’s body morphs into the product, so she becomes the car or the shoe or the bottle of beer. An ad that ran in several upscale women’s magazines featured a woman whose pubic hair had been shaved into the Gucci logo. We are encouraged to feel passion for our products rather than our partners.
As advertisers look for new ways to get our attention, they also use ever more graphic depictions of sex and of violence. Ads in the early 1960s, bad as they were, didn’t feature women’s battered bodies splayed out on the ground or stuffed into automobile trunks.
More important than images in specific ads is the rise in the power and impact of advertising in general. Nearly everything is about marketing these days, from journalism to entertainment to politics. Our entire culture is commercialized in a way unimaginable forty years ago.
I’m afraid there isn’t much good news about changes in the world of advertising. But increasingly, people understand that, far from being trivial, advertising is actually a public-health issue that affects us all. In this sense, we have come a long way indeed.
To find out more about Jean Kilbourne’s pioneering work on women and advertising, see her website.