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.
    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 The Gable Film Festival poster lends historical reference to the stereotype that women, like the one in back, fawn over men yet cannot hold their attention.

  2. Dismemberment.
    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?

  3. Clowning.
    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.

  4. Canting.
    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.

  5. Dominance/Violence. 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.