Sexist Advertisements: How to see through the soft sell


Research by Barbie White from Erving Goffman's
Gender Advertisements (1979).

This article originally appeared in Issue# 49

Everyone has seen blatantly offensive advertisements that portray women
as sexual toys or victims of violence. Such irresponsible advertising has
rightly touched off cries of protest and organized action. The following
are some of the more subtle ways advertising reinforces cultural values
of subservience, domination and inequality between the sexes.

  1. Superiority.

  2. Three common tactics used to establish
    superiority are size, attention and positioning. Notice how
    both men and women in the Hanes ad appear subservient because
    of their positions below and behind their partners. The Gable
    Film Festival poster lends historical reference to the stereotype
    that women, like the one in back, fawn over men yet cannot hold
    their attention.

  3. Dismemberment.

  4. Women's bodies are often dismembered and treated as separate
    parts, perpetuating the concept that a woman's body is not connected
    to her mind and emotions. The hidden message: If a woman has
    great legs, who cares who she is?

  5. Clowning.

  6. Shown alone in ads, men are often portrayed as secure, powerful
    and serious. By contrast, women are pictured as playful clowns,
    perpetuating the attitude that women are childish and cannot
    be taken seriously.

  7. Canting.

  8. People in control of their lives stand upright, alert and ready
    to meet the world. In contrast, the bending of body parts conveys
    unpreparedness, submissiveness and appeasement. The Capri ad
    further exemplifies head and body canting. The woman appears
    off-balance, insecure and weak. Her upraised hand in front of
    her face also conveys shame and embarrassment.

  9. Dominance/Violence.

  10. The tragic abuse-affection cycle that many women are trapped in is
    too often glorified in advertising. Is the Revlon ad selling lipstick
    and nail polish or the idea that a woman must be kept under control?
    Note the woman's affectionate reward for her pleasant cooperation
    in being choked with her own pearls. It's not funny, Frank.