Sneaky Sexism: Sexism in Advertising Still Prevails

26th July 2022

Over the past few years, we’ve seen a departure from overtly sexist and misogynistic advertising.

The #MeToo movement and the rise of “fempowerment” are just some factors that have caused advertisers to look at their campaigns and adapt their content in order to show women in a more powerful and positive light.

That doesn’t mean sexist advertising has ceased to exist.

Today, far too many brands are using outdated, harmful, and offensive female representations in their advertising. And yes, while we need to acknowledge that misogynistic marketing has improved, forms of sexism still exist in the marketing world.

And there’s a new term for this form of subtle sexist advertising – sneaky sexism.

What Is Sneaky Sexism?

Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts – former members of the leadership teams at Ogilvy and DDB, London, and now founders of PrettyLittleHead (PLH) – coined the term.

In their book ‘Brandsplaining: Why Marketing is (Still) Sexist and How to Fix It’, they explain that sneaky sexism is a form of “brandsplaining”.

For those unfamiliar with this term, brandsplaining occurs when brands believe they are in the driver’s seat when it comes to the relationship between themselves and their customers.

Essentially, it’s when brands feel they are in control of their customers’ needs and desires.

When it comes to sneaky sexism, Cunningham and Roberts define it as a type of sexism that is subtly added to advertising in a way that avoids offense and backlash from their audience.

Examples of Sneaky Sexism in Advertising

As the name suggests, sneaky sexism is more covert. For example, think back to when diet pills were first introduced.

You may think that these pills have been discontinued or fallen out of fashion due to the fact it pushed unhealthy ideals that women need to lose weight to be considered attractive. But these pills are still out there, but they’re now advertised as “wellness” products.

Another key example to keep an eye on is the way brands phrase the “fix it” narrative.

Back in the early 1930s, brands would suggest women need to change their physical appearance to adhere to society’s version of beauty. Today that narrative has changed, and women are now being instructed to change their characteristics.

Women are now told to be bold, confident, and love who they are. And while this may be a step in the right direction, this narrative still has negative connotations for women.

We are still telling women what they need to be like in order to be accepted by society. And if women don’t fit certain then they are still viewed as failures.

Has Sexist Advertising Evolved?

Until the 21st century, most advertising targeting women was created through what is known as the male gaze. In essence, women were mainly sexualised and/or portrayed as inferior to men.

In many cases, female advertising was created using the perfectionist narrative. At its core, this narrative would suggest that women are not good enough and need to improve their looks or how they run their household and look after their families.

The perfectionist narrative stuck around throughout the 20th century, but the idea of the perfect woman changed with the times and turned into the “good girl” phenomenon.

But what attributes does the “good girl” possess? Well, she would need to be subservient, skinny, pretty, and white, and women who featured in ads back in the 20th century would predominantly fit this mould.

You may think that we have moved past forcing this ideal onto women… but we haven’t. Today, 25% of ads that feature women are still sexualized, and 85% of these women adhere to the good girl phenomenon.

Why Are We Talking About This Now?

Unfortunately, sexism is still a pressing problem all over the world, including in marketing. Just look at the myriad examples of gender bias in AI…

Sexist advertising, in particular, can be incredibly impressionable and promotes harmful and misogynistic ideals for global audiences.

To prove the damaging impact of sexist advertising, Cunningham and Roberts spent 15 years researching and surveying 14,000 women in 14 countries across four continents to understand their thoughts on women in advertising.

And the results were telling…

  • Only 3% of ads displayed women as funny or doing something intellectual. Most women represented in ads were portrayed as “vacant and dumb”.
  • 63% of those surveyed believe modern advertising is in part to blame for the rise in body dysmorphia and eating disorders as they promote unrealistic and unattainable beauty standards.
  • Only 37% of those who appear in ads are women, and the ads that do feature women cast them in stereotypical roles.
  • Women speak around 7 times less than men in advertising, and 78% of ads feature men as the breadwinners.

In Conclusion

While we may have left the worst of overtly sexist marketing in the past, sexism still exists, and we need to do something about it.

As consumers become far more aware of overtly unethical and discriminatory practices in advertising and marketing, poor behaviour is quickly retreating to the verges, where it often continues to thrive. Just look at the persistence of “Rainbow-Washing” around Pride Month.

We need to create ads that women want, and ads that truly represent who they are on the inside. Now is the time to ditch this outdated depiction of women once and for all.


About Adapt

Digital performance marketing, analytics & consultancy for growth-minded brands.

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