Representation of Women in Advertising, 1950’s- Present

From the 1950’s to the present, the portrayal of women in advertising has gone from objectification through lack of agency and portrayals servitude, to objectification through an increased sexuality, where the product doesn’t matter, as much as the body of the person selling it. Advertising in general has changed in a variety of ways. We see ads in places we didn’t before, and we also see representation in ads we did not see before. While some progress has been made, the representation of women, particularly women of color, leaves a lot to be desired. Typically, companies will either offer token representation, or use problematic stereotypes with consequences they either don’t consider or do not care about. While the exact advertising has progressed over time, the underlying messaging has not. Madonna Badger founded the firm Badger & Winters, who recently took part in a #WomenNotObjects campaign. As part of this, the agency determined what the four key tests you can use to determine whether an ad is objectifying. They have identified these as “Props:  A woman is reduced to only a ‘thing’ in an ad. Plastic: A woman has been retouched beyond achievability. Parts: A woman is reduced to provocative body parts only, and Empathy: An ad prompts the viewer to ask, ‘What if this were my mother, my daughter or myself?’”. Over the course of this photo essay, you will see that all of these come into play at some point or another.

you mean a woman can open it

1953 AD for Alcoa Aluminum: Business Insider

This ad from 1953 advertises Alcoa Aluminum’s new easy open bottle caps. The tag line was that they could be opened “without a knife blade, a bottle opener, or even a husband”. The image is of a white woman, common in this era, as ads with minority women were essentially nonexistent. Her look of surprise is over the fact that she will be able to open this ketchup bottle herself, which the ad implies is a shocking revelation. This ad is obviously meant to appeal to men so they can laugh at the women. Perhaps less obvious however, is its attempt to appeal to women as well. Living in a sexist driven world, this ad would make even the most objectified woman feel confident in her abilities. Still, even this small attempt at appeal is drowned completely out by the sexism of the rest of the ad, which ends up defeating the entire purpose. 


1963 AD for Acme Coffee: Business Insider 

This ad comes a decade later, but shows the lack of progress seen in the advertising space. This continues the trend of a close up image of a smiling white woman, showing nothing else but the product. This also taps into the sexism trope as well, insinuating that a woman’s only role is to serve her husband, and that should be the driving force behind this purchase. Unlike typical ads where a person is smiling because they enjoy the product, this ad does not make any claims about or care what the woman thinks of it. The woman is smiling because she can achieve her implied dream of pleasing her husband. Other than the product, this ad focuses on two things: the pretty face of the model, and the hands holding the coffee she is about to serve her husband. By removing all other aspects, she is turned into nothing more than a pretty face ready to serve. 

Mr Leggs

1973 ad for Mr. Leggs Pants: Business Insider

This pants ad features the unbelievably sexist line: “After one look at his Mr. Leggs slacks, she was ready to have him walk all over her”.This keeps with the trend of using the face of a white woman and the product being the main things featured in the ad, but goes further than any of the ads we have looked at. While the other ads insinuate that the woman must be below the man, this ad literalizes it, having the man stand on top of the woman. It also transforms her into an animal, taking away her sense of agency and leaving nothing but a trophy behind for the man to use and abuse as he sees fit. The tagline “It’s nice to have a girl around the house” further dismisses her agency. It is nice to have a girl around the house, not because the man loves and cares for the woman, but because it is nice to have an object that he can walk all over and use as he likes. This dangerous imagery is not unique. “According to Kilbourne (1999), the sexual victimization of women that was once limited to pornography, has found expression not only in films and television shows, but in advertising as well. The body positions, facial expressions, and sexual power relationships between men and women that occur in advertising have often been adopted from violent pornography”. 

1980's advertisements | 1980's advertisement - Budweiser ...

1988 Budweiser ad: Pinterest

15 years later, the ads begin to change the portrayal of women, and the sexism changes in tone. Although at first glance it will seem to be an improvement, as the ads do not claim that these women should serve the men, the ads still do that nonverbally. By not using any text to give the women something to say, showing their full bodies in swimsuits so that they can be sexualized, they are reduced to objects in just the same way the women in the pants ad is. While before, the ads showed only the pretty face and the hands either holding the product or serving the man, even that is too much agency now. Of the three women featured in this ad, one of their faces you can’t see at all, one you only see half of, and one is hidden by sunglasses. This is because it is not about the women, it is about marketing to young men who would be excited at the concept of women in swimsuits. Women are now faceless, it is only the bodies that matter. This removes the agency of women even more, turning them into faceless dolls made by men for men, and subliminally sending messages to women about what is “beautiful” and what is not. In 1988, Gary Sullivan and P.J. O’Connor compared ads from 1983 to ads from 1958-1970. This comparison showed a 60% increase in women being portrayed “in decorative or sexualized roles”. Gone are the housewife ads, the era of sexualized women in ads have begun.

1995 Nintendo Ad: Business Insider

Seven years later, this eyebrow-raising 1995 promotion for Nintendo’s Gameboy was restricted in the U.K in the wake of a staggering number of formal complaints. The message that Nintendo was probably attempting to convey was the client’s decision between their item and sex. Along these lines, the lady in the ad is diminished to her “default” estimation of sex, and further, held at a lesser value than the new Gameboy. The perhaps morbid demeanor of this ad uncovers darker undertones, but even without this, the portrayal of a tied-up lady in this advertisement shouldn’t have agreed with the general introduction of the brand. This ad represents a regression in respectful representations of women that would persist throughout the 90’s.

2007 Tom Ford Ad: The Fader

This advertisement was viewable on Tom Ford’s website with the warning “Sexually Explicit Images” tagged onto it. The series of pictures a naked woman clutching the crotch of a man in a suit, a nude man and woman on the beach, a couple having sex in the park with guys watching on, and a naked woman ironing while a man drinks champagne and smokes a cigar. This campaign by Tom Ford was one of the most controversial ad campaigns of the decade, but it actually represents the peak of Oughties advertising. If you look elsewhere in popular culture, this sexualization of women by applying deep red nail polish and lipstick, spray-on tan and a light condensation on the skin was pervasive during this time. Some examples of this include Megan Fox in “Transformers (2007)” and Keira Knightley in “Pirates of the Carribean (2003).”

2010 Huggies Ad: The Sociological Cinema

The image above is from a 2010 Australian Huggies diaper advertisement that’s seen to conflate sex and gender. The 30 second long advertisement shows multiple clips that indicate childhood sexism. The boy is seen wearing blue while fidgeting with trucks and reading truck storybooks while the girl is seen in pink clothes, playing with pink dolls and reading princess story books. Scholars have argued that male and feminine children learn from a really early age about appropriate “masculine” and “feminine” behavior. This results in the perpetuation of gender stereotypes because the children get older and become individual members of society. This marks a noticeable scale-back in advertising sexism that occurred during the 2010s due to increased awareness of the dangers of conflating sex and gender.

KFC roasted for ad depicting boys gawking at women's breasts

2020 KFC ad: New York Post

This ad proves the hypothesis that even today, portrayal of women in advertising continues to be problematic. KFC was forced to apologize after public outcry, but the question remains of how this even got made in the first place. This is a problem that could easily be fixed by having more women at the table in advertising firms. Even after apologizing, the ad was left on KFC’s YouTube channel. The only action taken was to turn the comments of the video off. The ad features a woman adjusting her butt and then breasts in the window as the camera zooms in on them. The window then rolls down to reveal a young boy staring at her, completely objectifying her in the moment, while his mother sits in the background looking angry. As the camera switches back to the woman, they make sure to keep her breasts visible, and then imply that this situation is the woman’s fault. This is shown by the woman offering KFC to diffuse the situation, rather than having the young boy apologize for staring at and objectifying the woman in front of him. 

From the 1950’s to the present, the portrayal of women in advertising has gone from objectification through lack of agency and portrayals servitude, to objectification through an increased sexuality, where the product doesn’t matter, as much as the body of the person selling it. At their core, businesses serve one purpose: to make money. To do this, they respond to consumer trends and pressures as they appear. This is why we have begun to see changes in how women are represented in advertising. While we appear to have moved past the days of advertising that blatantly puts men above women, modern advertising has become much more insidious, attempting to utilize the male gaze, emphasized femininity, and more to push the same messages used in ads from the 60’s, while not getting called out for sexism. By making it less obvious, these subliminal messages become ingrained in us from a young age, with people saying things like “ads today aren’t like they were back in the 60’s”! This sense of “progress” is nothing more than a fallacy, and an analysis of ads over that period of time shows that. 


Jacobs, H. (2014, May 08). 26 Sexist Ads Of The ‘Mad Men’ Era That Companies Wish We’d Forget. Retrieved July 01, 2020, from

1980’s advertisements: 1980’s advertisement – Budweiser Advertising: Beer commercials, Budweiser, Budweiser girls. (n.d.). Retrieved July 01, 2020, from 

Cost, B. (2020, January 21). KFC roasted for ad depicting boys gawking at woman’s breasts. Retrieved July 01, 2020, from 

Sullivan, G. L., & O’Connor, P. J. (1988). Women’s role portrayals in magazine advertising: 1958–1983. Sex Roles, 18, 181–188. Retrieved July 01, 2020, from 

Kilbourne, J., & Pipher, M. (2012). Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel. Riverside: Free Press. Retrieved July 01, 2020, from 

Szymanski, T. (n.d.). Changing the Portrayal of Women in Advertising. Retrieved July 01, 2020, from 

Letzter, R. (2015, July 28). 15 shocking video game ads from the 80s and 90s. Retrieved July 01, 2020, from

Sandhoff, M. (2012, November 06). Conflating Sex and Gender in a Huggies Nappies Ad. Retrieved July 01, 2020, from 

Digital, D. (n.d.). Controversial fashion ads. Retrieved July 01, 2020, from 

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