As a feminist and social critic, I often point out how the advertising and marketing spheres are a major source of sexism and misogyny. From sexualization to objectification, advertisers know that sex (and poking at people’s insecurities) sells. Unfortunately, a common reaction to my blogs which point out the sexism and sheer ridiculousness of advertising and marketing is to claim that “It’s their job to sell you stuff!” I want to clear up why I believe that companies should be held responsible for how they market their products and why we as consumers should not accept sexism, sex and body-negativity, or misogyny as the status quo.
Popular consumerism feeds off of the sexism that already exists in society. This is how companies can get away with blatant sexism; unfortunately, many people just don’t notice sexist products or ads because they believe that it is “just the way things are.” JC Penney’s famously kicked up some anger with their t-shirt for young girls that read: “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother has to do it for me.” More recently, Land’s End committed a major sexist advertising snafu by not only gendering the backpacks in their back-to-school issue, but by imbedding sexist messages in the ad copy itself. While the backpacks geared towards boys were “superhero tough,” the backpack marketed to girls were “tough as long division!”
Sexist ads exist because we live in a sexist society. By feeding off ideologies that already surround us, sexist media also perpetuates sexism and misogyny. Understanding the cyclical nature of harmful advertising is the first step to changing it.
From a feminist perspective this all seems very simple. It is easy to forget that some people make a living writing successful ad campaigns, or that others may accept that sexism sold to them because they don’t know there is another way. Organizations like the Better Business Bureau fight against false advertising for diet and medical products, but have yet to become very active in fighting against the more social harms of sexist business and advertising. I believe that while big change must come from consumers themselves, an awareness of social issues should be mandatory for those in the advertising and marketing fields. Advertising and marketing as a profession must be more self-reflective. It must reconcile a way to market effectively without perpetuating sexism, racism, ableism, heterosexism, sex-negativity, body-negativity, etc. Some say this cannot be done, but there are many successful ads that fight against the status quo and have won companies plenty of positive media coverage. For example, a recent Ray Bans ad featured a gay couple holding hands. JC Penney was targeted by the conservative group One Million Moms for featured gay parents in their advertisements. Rather than give in to OMM’s protest, JC Penney affirmed its commitment to representing diverse families. This is one example of a company doing what they believe to be right, not necessarily what will sell more.
Calling attention to the way that sexism is perpetuated through seemingly harmless television shows, advertisements, magazine spreads, and marketing schemes is a way to disrupt the acceptance of sexism. Organizations like Miss Representation and Spark Summit do a wonderful job at calling companies out on a grander scale. Boycotting a product or writing a letter to the company explaining your disgust is always a good idea. Giving companies who use sexism to sell products lots of negative press is another step you can take. On a very micro-level, I have found that simply pointing something out to those who are around me while watching TV, riding the subway, or listening to the radio is more productive than you might think. Nothing makes me prouder than hearing my younger siblings declare, “That’s so sexist,” while watching television.