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. In 2010, a five-minute video featuring Jean Kilbourne went viral, racking up over 2 million views; it covered the extremely negative effects of advertising on women and girls.

Despite the efforts of many women (and men), it's apparent that we're still seeing the same patterns of objectification and the mindless use of seminaked women in advertising campaigns.

In many respects, the problem has escalated. An image of a semi-naked woman in the seventies and eighties isn't even close to images of seminaked women today. Today, with the proliferation of Photoshop and the prevalence of retouching, women are not just flawless, they are portrayed as anatomically impossible. This is harmful on many levels, to women and girls alike.

The Ideal Woman as Portrayed in Advertising

Advertising, marketing, and the fashion industry have created a new type of woman who does not exist in the real world. You probably know the "Barbie Doll" look, but let's look at some of her main features:

  • She has no wrinkles, blemishes, or scars, and her skin is perfect.
  • She has impossibly long, smooth, and shapely legs.
  • Her waist so small it's as though you could break her in two.
  • Her ample breasts and buttocks are gravity-defying miracles.
  • She has a head of silky, radiant hair that looks like CGI. 
  • Her eyes are dazzlingly bright.
  • Her teeth are beyond white, perfectly straight, and appear unreal.

What Men and Women Are Taught to Desire

At a very 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. She is the standard to set your life by. Women, from the same early age, are told they must look like this woman. They should aim to have those long legs, that perfect skin, beautiful hair, and incredible body. 

Here's the problem; that woman does not exist, anywhere. She is the product of hours in the makeup chair and days of photo retouching, even if she's a supermodel. Her waist is not that skinny because no woman with a 23" waist wears a D-cup bra without the aid of implants. Every woman has imperfections in her skin because every woman is human. 

What Advertising Is Really Selling

Advertising's main function is to create a need so that a company can provide a product or service to meet that need. For example, men drink certain brands of beer because they associate them with advertising's impossibly perfect (and highly sexy) women. "If I drink that beer, I'll get that woman." On the other hand, women and girls buy certain clothes, foods, and makeup products in a vain attempt to resemble the beer-drinking girl on TV.

How This Play Out In the Real World

Men are taught (programmed) to view women as objects. It has led in part to the way men view women as objects at work. The extent of this surfaced in 2017/2018 with the birth of the #MeToo and TimesUp movements birthed by sexual harassment claims made against Hollywood's Harvey Weinstein when actress Ashley Judd gave her story to major news outlets. Years earlier, Weinstein had threatened Judd if she didn't agree to a sexual act. With the spotlight on men's bad behavior in the workplace, other women came forward, and such high-profile figures as Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer were forced to resign after numerous women publicly charged sexual misconduct against them.

What the Early Feminists had to Say

When Our Bodies, Our Selves was published in the late 1960s, it served as a feminist manifesto for women to love and honor their bodies. Betty Friedan, who passed away in 2006, and Gloria Steinem—alive and active at 80-something as of March 2018—were founders of the feminist movement. Both had envisioned an egalitarian and enlightened world by the 21st century. That has not happened. However, if today's feminists (and such TimesUp founders as Oprah Winfrey and Shonda Rhimes) have their way, women will be less objectified moving forward.

What Advertisers Can Do

Several brands, including Dove and Aerie, have tried to move away from typical images of perfection. They claim to be "Photoshop-free," and celebrate real, diverse women. Of course, they still use very attractive women in their campaigns, because many people are superficial to a degree. 

Thankfully, beer brands are moving away from seminaked 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, try and steer the client away from the Photoshopped images of stereotyped Barbie Doll women. Veer away from the skinny size 2 models and champion the use of plus-size (or at least size 10) women in all ads—print and electronic.