The Good Wife? Sixty Years of Sexist Advertising

The sales pitch may have got shorter, but the concept is still there… “Modern” ads are still marked by the same stereotypes about women’s roles which prevailed in previous decades. And it hasn’t gone subtler either.


From the domestic goddess of the 1950s to Thatcher’s power women, and to the all-encompassing superwoman of the 2000s (leading an active life at work but also a devoted mother, great cook and always perfecting her Warrior II pose), women have always been placed in a tight box by marketers.

And of course the “sex sells” mantra still prevails, so innumerable ads hope to cash in on women’s value as sex objects.

Let’s have a think about some of the most shocking ones. No more images in this post, just descriptions – which already seem graphic enough… A BMW ad depicts a couple having sex: he’s on top and she’s lying on her back with her face totally covered by an open car magazine. The lucky man is getting his pleasure from staring at a double spread of the latest BMW. The caption reads: “The ultimate attraction”. More likely the ultimate depression!

And it goes much further, since shock tactics have always been a useful tool in advertisement. Valentino’s ad of a man pressing his shoe down on the throat of a woman lying on the floor received its share of outrage, and when in 2007 Dolce & Gabbana released a porn chic ad glamourising gang rape, it was pulled by many magazines… but in both cases the brands got wide exposure. Better any publicity than no publicity.

One of the growing trends in these last years has seen women not just treated as objects but actually transformed into inanimate objects – in one Renault TV ad a woman became the car itself and in several ads for beverages a woman’s body is transformed into a bottle. Using celebrities as advertising media significantly increases the effectiveness of this message: Brigitte Nielsen’s breasts act as beer bottle openers in a Carlsberg commercial; the soles of the feet of Olympic athlete Marie-José Perec are transformed into Pirelli tyres.

Let’s not forget one thing: objectifying women unmistakably leads to objectifying men… although marketers are a bit more reluctant. When Benetton, always a leader in shock advertisement, tried to sell one of their French print ads – 56 photos of penises neatly arranged across a double spread–they were given the cold shoulder by most magazines.

But let’s look at some interesting figures: according to, a site which brands itself as “a guy’s guide to marketing to women”, women make 85% of all purchases but an overwhelming majority feel misunderstood by food, healthcare, automotive and investment marketers.

So, when will we see advertising which reflects the continuous changes in men’s and women’s roles, and the diversity of lifestyles they lead?

When will we see advertising which doesn’t use either men or women unfairly, reduces them to mere objects or accessories, presents them as weaker or in a state of emotional dependence towards the other sex or represents them so that their intellectual abilities are devalued?

Maybe this will happen when a key figure changes: still according to, only 3% of creative directors in ad agencies are women!

A last striking example: at CES 2015, the biggest electronics show in the world, women were mostly found under the form of accessories – booth babes bouncing on the latest fitness equipment – rather than panelists or executives. But women make up 52% of gamers, according to eMarketer and they own more own tablets than men in the UK… So maybe it’s time for a reality check?