Women in Advertising

Advertising teaches us from a very young age how to act, dress, speak, and relate to others, especially the “opposite” sex. It is gender construction and stereotypes; it is there to sell us a line. And that line is that you are imperfect. Not only are you imperfect, but it is your duty, as a woman, to strive for an unrealistic perfection that you will never reach. When you fail to reach this imperfection you internalize the failure and see it as your fault, something you did. This contributes eating disorders, low self esteem among women, and even violence against women. Advertising is teaching American women to want to be sexually provocative but to be sexually provocative through the clothes they wear and how they look to the male gaze looking at them. I chose this topic because it affects everyone regardless of age, gender, race, or class and certainly some of those more than others.

Women are vulnerable in a culture that uses them for their body parts. Women are not valued for their actions, their intelligence or what they say, but how they look and how they wear their clothes. They are used to sell products. Their sexuality is exploited to sell, sell, sell. This exploitation in advertising leads to other much more dangerous exploitations such as domestic violence, harassment, child abuse, murder, and rape. Advertising is everywhere and in everything. The image of women portrayed in advertising and the media at large is how we have come to see ourselves “what we take ourselves to be is how we perceive ourselves to be perceived” (Reichert 185). It is so pervasive that women who claim to not be influenced by advertising still find themselves dieting nine months out of twelve and buying expensive cosmetics to cover their wrinkles, dye the gray out of their hair, and dress twenty years younger than they are to appear attractive to men. It is a male construction that only young females are attractive but we buy into it every time we buy that foundation, or promise to lose those ten extra pounds gained over Christmas. We are taught to think that is what we are supposed to do so that is what we do. That’s why I have chosen this topic, its very penetration into the core identity of all women.


Advertising has deep roots in America. The first advertising campaign began in the nineteenth century and was used to entice Europeans to come to this wild and foreign country describing America as “The Garden of Eden” (Sivulka 7). Advertising in Europe had its beginning in the 1440’s when Johannes Gutenberg invented the first printing press with movable type in Germany on which the first printed book was the Bible. After that the first form of ads were handbills, posters, trade cards, and newspapers, which were the first mass produced medium. In 1477, William Caxton, a London printer, printed the first printed advertisement in English selling a prayer book. Soon magazines and newspapers picked up ads and carried them into the surrounding community. It was not until the 1700’s that advertisements became the main source of revenue for newspapers and magazines. The first printing press in America was established at Harvard College in 1639 (Sivulka).

Benjamin Franklin founded the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1728 and was the first known American to use illustrations in his ads. He was pioneer in the advertising field using ads on the front page, using white space and headlines. During this period most ads were focused on land, runaway slaves, and transportation. But it was the demand for news about the American Revolution that inflamed newspaper circulation, but also worsened the paper shortage at the time. The Civil War gave rise to a consumer economy and Isaac Merritt Singer’s sewing machine became the first heavily advertised machine made for the American home. As is customary with every war in history America has been involved in women were active in the workforce during the war. In 1870, “1 out of 6 workers were women all young and unmarried with money to spend” (Sivulka 20). Due to this women were the primary consumer’s spending their wartime paychecks. This is the first time that advertising became focused on the woman consumer, a fact that is still true today.

In 1833, Benjamin Day issued The New York Sun for the low cost of one cent. The cost of production was subsidized by the advertising within the paper sold for the flat rate of $30 a year for a square not unlimited space like in the past. In 1835, James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald issued advertisers pay 50 cents a day to advertise in his paper or $2.50 for two weeks with no further extension to keep the ads new. It was the invention of photography and print detailed illustrations in 1839 that gave advertisers a new way of showcasing their products. One of the first advertising agencies was Ayer & Son established by Francis W. Ayer in New York in 1869. Joseph Pulitzer was the first to base advertising rates on circulation figures in his New York World in 1883 (Silvulka).

People did not know what they wanted until advertising provided pictures of products and told the masses that they could not live without it. Brand name products began to be established around the turn of the twentieth century with Quaker Oats being one of the first companies to realize the benefits of advertising under a brand. A company can charge more for their product because it is the brand name they trust and will buy again and again. Brand names provided individuals with status and the identity for the person with social aspirations. Proctor & Gamble began selling Ivory soap, the soap that floats, after an accident left the soap in the mixer too long creating air bubble imperfections within the bars. They offered prizes for people who could come up with the best jingle for their soap. Luxury items such as bicycles and cameras began to be advertised to the masses, with available payment plans for each item (Sivulka).

Also during this time trademark personalities began to represent the product they were trying to sell such as the “Gold Dust twins, Sir Thomas Lipton, Morton’s Salt Girl and Planter’s Mr. Peanut” (Sivulka 100). Many of these personalities are still around to this day selling products. It was Earnes Elmo Calkins that elevated the art of advertisement, choosing to emphasize the ad itself and not the budget. He used simplified, “sculpted forms; flat, unshaded, planes of color and silhouetted figures” characteristic of the modern format of the Arts and Craft movement (Sivulka 101). This is the period in which models became more stylized than in realistic in body shape and even skin tone.

It was not until after World War I that advertising began to take on a shape similar to what it is today. The J. Walter Thompson agency was one of the first to use psychological devices to entice customers. Their tactics included fear, sex, and emulation as appeals to the condition of customers to want the product. It was the phenomena of tabloid newspapers with their outrageous scandals, gruesome murders and fantastic stories and the confession magazines that gave advertisers greater insight into the psyche of the American woman consumer. Copywriters learned to keep the copy short, personalized, and intimate while emphasizing romance rather than reality in order to appeal to women (Sivulka).

Advertising is so pervasive that most people refuse to accept the impact of its influence on their everyday lives. But for the companies that spend over $200 billion dollars annually on advertising you bet it exists. Advertising is the most persuasive and most likely to be seen form of media out there today. It is on buses, billboards, cars, trucks, videos, shopping carts, commercials, newspapers, magazines, movies, everywhere. No on is safe from advertising. For a person to not be influenced by advertising “would be to live outside of culture. No human being lives outside of culture” (Kilbourne 220). Women are the prime target of advertisers when it comes to selling products for “because she is the emblem of spending ability and the chief spender she is also the most effective seller” (Berger 34).. Women controlled the pockets of their husbands when it came to buying what was needed for the household to “care, feed, and maintain the home” (Bartos 203).

Works Cited

Bartos, Rena. 1989. Marketing to Women Around the World. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Berger Asa Arthur. 2004. Ads, Fads, and Consumer Culture. Boulder: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers Inc.

Kilbourne, Jean, and Mary Pipher. 2000. Can’t Buy My Love : How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall.

Sivulka, Juliann. 1998. Soap, Sex and Cigarettes: A Cultural History of American Advertising. Albany: Wadesworth Publishing Company.