Harmful portrayals of women permeate advertising

Laura Doan

Carl’s Jr. recently released a new commercial that signals a retreat from 10 years of ad campaigns that featured tanned women in bikinis enjoying burgers to a ridiculous degree. Other than being unrealistic — because, to be clear, Kate Upton would never ordinarily walk into a Carl’s Jr., much less attempt to eat the thing using only her tongue — the commercials were also notable examples of how advertisers objectify the female body for financial gain. As Andy Puzder, the company’s former CEO and nominee for labor secretary, noted, “We believe in putting hot models in our commercials, because ugly ones don’t sell burgers.” Carl’s Jr.’s new commercial simply promises to sell “Food not Boobs.” But despite this eloquent quasi-apology, the world of advertising in 2017 is still rife with toxic portrayals of women.

A wide swath of advertisers continue to sweep diversity aside while touting the ideas that beautiful women are thin and white, and that sexy women are submissive and innocent. See this compiled list of high fashion ad campaigns for 2017 with models that are overwhelmingly size 2, with light skin. This list also includes Fendi’s 2017 ad featuring Gigi and Bella Hadid as a prime example of how ads tie women’s sexuality to childlike innocence. The sisters are in half pigtail hairstyles and are posed sitting in the corner like a toddler in time out. 

Advertisements sell many things directly — shoes, chips, cars, depression medication. But ads have real power under the surface. Like the iceberg that sunk the Titanic, ads seem deceptively small and harmless at first glance, but have massive weight under the surface which can make for a perspective-tipping impact. Advertisers quietly sell consumers a version of the world that many subconsciously buy into — norms of female beauty and sexuality. 

Assistant advertising professor Kathrynn Pounders, who studies consumer psychology, said women are negatively impacted when they compare themselves to the models they see in advertisements. 

“There is a large body of research in psychology and consumer behavior that demonstrates a link between exposure to idealized imagery (thin-ideal and airbrushing) that negatively impacts self-esteem and body image,” Pounders wrote in an email. “Some research has linked this to eating disorders as well.” She also notes that men are portrayed as strong and successful while women are often depicted as “passive, mothers, attractive and demure.”

It is inexcusable that the portrayals given to women in many ads still push outdated ideas of female beauty and sexuality, especially when the consequences can be destructive to female self-esteem. Despite notable exceptions, like Always’s “Like a Girl” ad and Under Armour’s “I Will What I Want” campaign featuring Misty Copeland, Pounders thinks that stereotypes in ads will persist for quite some time. “These traditional stereotypes have been so pervasive for so long that it will take a long time to change,” she said.

If advertisers continue to offer such narrow pictures of feminine ideals, women themselves must be cautious when flipping through pages of Vogue or Us Weekly. Being aware of the possible harm that advertisements might cause to self-perception is key to averting the dangers. And since so many advertisers do not show the full range of beautiful and sexy females, women must remind themselves and each other that women of all sizes and races are beautiful and that strength is sexy.

Doan is a Plan II and English sophomore from Fort Worth.