The Objectification of Women in Advertising

How Advertising Often Treats Women As a Commodity

Barbie doll wrapped in string
••• Getty Images

Since the introduction of advertising many centuries ago, women have been objectified, and in some instances, insulted or degraded. Despite the efforts of many people, it's apparent that society is still seeing the same patterns of objectification and the mindless use of sexualized women in advertising campaigns.

In many respects, the problem has escalated. With the proliferation of photo retouching software, women's bodies are not just flawless, they are anatomically impossible. This is harmful on many levels.

Advertising False Ideals

Advertising, marketing, and the fashion industry have created a new type of woman that does not exist in the real world. The "Barbie Doll" look they're selling has some recognizable features:

  • She has no wrinkles, blemishes, or scars.
  • She has long, smooth, and shapely legs.
  • Her waist is quite small.
  • Her ample breasts and buttocks defy gravity.
  • Her radiant hair looks like CGI. 
  • Her eyes are dazzling and bright.
  • Her teeth are shining white and perfectly straight.

Exploiting Learned Desires

At an early age, men are programmed to desire the Barbie Doll woman. This is the woman featured in ads for perfumes and lingerie. She is the centerfold in "Playboy." Women, from the same early age, are told they must look like this woman. They should aim to have long legs, perfect skin, beautiful hair, and an impossible body. 

The problem is: That woman does not exist. She is the product of hours in the makeup chair and days of photo retouching, even if she's a supermodel. Every woman has imperfections because every woman is human. 

A primary goal of advertising is to create a need so that a company can provide a product or service to meet that need. For example, men may drink certain brands of beer because they associate them with advertising's objectified women.

On the other hand, women might buy certain clothes, foods, and makeup products in an attempt to resemble the beer-drinking girl on TV.

Real-World Results

Men are taught (programmed) to view women as objects. It may have led in part to the way men view women as objects at work.

The extent of this became a public focus in late 2017 with the birth of the #MeToo and Time's Up movements, which sought to expose the culture of sexual harassment and abuse in Hollywood, and by extension, in the culture.

Early Feminists' Take

When "Our Bodies, Ourselves" was published in 1970, it urged women to love and honor their bodies. Betty Friedan, who passed away in 2006, and Gloria Steinem—alive and active at 84 as of January 2019—were founders of the feminist movement.

Both had envisioned and worked toward an egalitarian and enlightened world by the 21st century. That has not happened yet. However, if today's feminist leaders are successful in achieving their goals, advertising will not objectify women moving forward.

Changes in Advertising

Several brands, including Dove and Aerie, have moved away from the images of perfection of the past. They claim to be "Photoshop-free" and celebrate real, diverse women.

Beer brands are moving away from semi-naked models. The craft beer movement is on the rise, and they don't need Playboy bunnies to help them sell inventory—although, sadly, the majority of men will still be attracted to cliched sexy images.

If you work at an agency, you can try to steer clients away from Photoshopped images of Barbie Doll women. Veer away from the skinny size 2 models, and champion the use of normal-sized women as models for the products you sell.