“Sex sells,” goes the old advertising adage. True, but don’t forget its counterpart: “sexism sells” — or, at the very least, is far too often used, overlooked, and tolerated.
As cataloguing sexist ads of decades past has become a bona fide online trend (capitalized upon by popular website after popular website after popular website), it seems some have implicitly relegated sexism in advertising to the land of vintage.
Of course, it should go without saying that sexism in advertising is not some inert historical artifact. Just two weeks ago, The New York Times reported on the resignation of a disgraced executive at one of New York’s largest ad firms amid accusations of both sexism and racism.
Moreover, that report makes it very clear that industry insiders felt the executive’s sexism was emblematic of a far larger trend still lurking within the industry as a whole.
Of course, there’s no need to even know the behind-the-scenes sexism that’s creating the ads you see every day — you can simply look at the ads themselves and see it for yourself.
All those online collections of vintage sexist ads certainly recall a different era. But that’s the thing: It was simply a different era. Is there actually less sexism in advertising now than when the ad above was created? Probably not. It’s less overt in its messaging today, but far more overtly exploitative sexually, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
It should be pointed out that we also have a strong trend in advertising these days that is empowering to women (although, yes, some of that may just be cynical corporate calculation). Funnily enough, J. Walter Thompson, the very same ad firm whose executive just resigned in disgrace, recently began representing Kellogg’s Special K (in many ways, the spiritual successor to Kellogg’s discontinued Pep cereal above).
That cereal — widely known for marketing heavily toward women, very often with a supposedly empowering message, particularly when it comes to healthy body image — is now producing ads that stand in stark contrast to the Kellogg’s ads of days gone by.
Sometimes, when you compare past decades with the present, the state of sexism in advertising is just different. But, just sometimes, it’s different and better: