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Advertising and Women – Past and Present

The history of advertising and women is a fascinating timeline showing how women have been viewed by society at large, and the ideals that women have been held up to over the course of the 20th and 21st centuries. The earliest 20th century ads aimed at women usually appealed to their sense of thriftiness in running a household. In the 1920s, ads for things like custard, tomato juice, and canned fruits often indicated that a particular brand gave families more for their money.

Ads for automobiles have long featured women, but with the exception of popular family cars of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, they have rarely targeted women as buyers of cars. In the mid 20th century, women in car ads were shown decoratively posed in the passenger seat, or leaning against a car with a “come hither” look on her face. But it wasn’t until decades later that women were shown driving cars that they would theoretically buy themselves.

Indeed, a study of women in advertisements in the 1970s showed that women appeared on camera in television ads 21% of the time. By 1996, a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that that proportion had jumped to 42%. But this did not mean that women were necessarily shown as having power equal to that of men.

Research into advertising and women in the 20th century showed that 75% of advertisements aimed at women were for bathroom or kitchen products. In 56% of ads, women were shown as housewives, and fewer than 20 occupations were depicted for women, while more than 40 were depicted for men. While women are certainly more represented in advertising in the 21st century, they are still often depicted as either ornamental, or in need of changing to improve their attractiveness.

The advertising industry has come under fire repeatedly for showing images of women that are impossibly thin and pretty, on the theory that such ads make women and girls believe that their worth comes from their appearance. Advertisers counter that they make ads to sell products, and this type of ad is effective.

However, some companies have chosen to increase the diversity of the women used in their advertisements. Perhaps the most popular of these in the early 20th century has been the advertising campaign by soap maker Dove, whose ads feature women in a range of shapes, sizes, and colors. But with this campaign, Dove was swimming upstream against a torrent of ads featuring women either in objectified situations (such as being admired by men for their appearance) or being told that they need a certain product in order to improve their attractiveness.

The history of advertising and women has been tumultuous. Ads in the 21st century occasionally make a bold statement about women and diversity (such as the Dove ads), but ads in general continue to use women as objects of adoration in ads aimed at men, and as insatiable consumers of beauty products in ads pitched at women.