A Brief History of the Portrayal of Women In Print Advertisements

Ads set out to achieve a specific goal; they “ask us to go somewhere, do something, try something, buy something, accept some single idea, add a new word to our vocabulary, and associate positive images with that word” (Jamieson, 172). In other words, advertisers try to get the public to acknowledge what they have to say and take action on it in some shape or form. Advertisements are published in many forms such as the traditional print version which includes being in newspapers, magazines, hand flyers and many other print forms. 

Other ad forms include radio, television, digital, billboards and in many cases, people can serve as a form of advertisement. People are bombarded with ads on a daily basis while they are shopping, driving to work, checking their emails, and even embedded in the movies and shows we like to watch called product placements. One product placement ad example, according to Steven L. Synder, can be seen in the 1982 Hollywood movie called E.T. In one of the scenes, the little alien was following and eating Reese’s Pieces. Although the alien did not tell viewers to buy it, Synder notes that sales on the item increase within a few months (301).

 Advertisements date back to before the seventieth century. Back then, there were ads that announce the sale of slaves, such as the 1840 ad entitled “Valuable Gang of Young Negros” by the company, Jos. A.

slave ad
#B0072, Slave ad

Beard. Many ads today, as there probably were many years ago, portrayed genders and different races in different ways. When it comes to creative jobs in advertising, women are underrepresented although they make up“85% of all purchasing decisions” (Hanan). With this statistic, there is no wonder women are portrayed the way they are in ads. Based on an analysis of a collection of print advertisements, not much has changed from the 1800s in the diminishing and sexist ways women are portrayed.

For women, appearances are seen as being more important than anything else. This serves to have been true during the 1800s as well. For instance, a print ad by National Cloak and Suit Co. from the 1800s advertised corsets that claimed to give and “preserve the perfect figure.” the drawn model for the ad is a white female wearing one of the corsets advertised. Her waist, abdomen, and hips are extremely small and does not seem to match with the upper part of her body. This distorted image of how a woman should look was considered beautiful. This ad sends the message that this was what women should have looked like during the 1800s. This ad was perfectly executed because it not only told women about the corsets, it showed them how they thought they would look if they wore one themselves. 

#A0204, Corset ad

Some ads portrayed women as unintelligent like a 1952 Schlitz Beer ad. This print ad shows a wife holding a pan of what appears to be burnt food. She is shown crying to her husband who says the “Don’t worry darling, you didn’t burn the beer!” (Edwards and Harrison). This ad is indirectly saying that women are weak and cry over everything and that women are not smart. Although it is obvious that she did not burn the beer, the advertisers wanted to make it clear that women won’t recognize the obvious, but men will.

Schlitz Beer ad
Schlitz Beer ad
Ketchup ad

Another ad that eliminated the possibility that women could be smart is, for example, a 1953 ad for Alcoa Aluminum’s Ketchup. The ad is advertising their easy to open Ketchup bottle. The woman in the ad looks surprised, and words at the bottom that read “You mean a woman can open it?” the title for this ad is “Alcoa Aluminum’s bottle caps open “without a knife blade, a bottle opener, or even a husband” (Edwards and Harrison).  This ad says that women depend on their husbands for many things, but now there is a way that women will not have to bother men because they can do it themselves.

Sunglasses ad


Sex is often used in ads as attention grabbers (Servedio , 4). Many ads, although not about sex, are somehow able to include sexual phrases or images. One example is the 1982 ad for Papillon Sunglasses. An object such as sunglasses is not sexual in any form, but the ad depicts a man on a sailboat with the advertised glasses and two women in bikinis. The shots are focused on the women’s bikini bottoms. Advertisers made a simple product appear to sex. The message that this sends to men is that all of the cool guys who wear Papillon Sunglasses get half naked women.


nasty feet boot adAnother example of how advertisers squeeze sexual things in ads not meant to be sexual is a 80s ad by Nasty Feet. This ad is advertising boots, but for some reason they thought it was right to include a woman in boots with no pants on and a group of men standing in front of her. Below the ad is their slogan, “Nothing Comes Close!” the ad is advertising the sale of boots and the attention from naked women that the boots will bring (Vintage Clothes/ Fashion Ads of the 1980s).


Leading into the 1990s ads did not change much.  The same degrading sexual images and phrases from the last decade remain and they did not seem to get any better. 

Versace Jeans ad
Versace Jeans ad

Versace was very famous for the way they advertise their products in sexual ways. In their 1995 ad, it showed a topless woman wearing the advertised jeans. There is also a man laying down on the table-she’s standing over him- wearing the jeans. The women’s pants are pulled down exposing her underwear with the man’s foot pressed on her private area. (Vintage Clothes/ Fashion Ads of the 1990s). This ad is very disturbing, and sends the wrong messages to consumers.The oversexualized image attached to this product probably improved sales, but there had to be other ways to promote their jeans.  

Most of these ads in this timeline show women as “hacked apart” (Servedio, 11). What this means is that only parts of the women are shown. When their bodies are in parts, “women cease to be seen as whole persons.” This implies that women are “less than human;” no head in ads show that women have no brains. Ads with faceless women indicate that women have “no individuality;” if the women have no feet shows immobility “and [she’s] therefore submissive” (Servedio, 11). These ads also shape the perceptions that young viewers may have had. The Versace ad as well as the Nasty Feet ad tell young girls that they should dress or behave a certain way to get guys to acknowledge them at least as sexual objects.

Burger King ad
Burger King ad

Most of the ads from the 1800s to the 1990s focused on the appearances of women. Other ads such as the ketchup ad and beer ad made fun of women by indirectly calling them unintelligent. When you compare these print ads to more recent ads, not much has changed. For instance, a 2013 Burger King ad shows a woman with her mouth open and a seven inch sandwich about to inter her mouth. Below is the phrase, “It’ll Blow Your Mind Away.” Not much needs to be explained about this ad, except for the fact that it is highly inappropriate. 

Just like in 2013, ads in 2016 have not changed. Specifically, a 2016 Tom Ford ad showed a women in two different ads holding a bottle of their fragrance. One ad shows the woman holding the fragrance between her legs, while the other one is shown between the woman’s breasts.

Tom Ford Fragrance ads
Tom Ford Fragrance ads

Their target audience were clearly men, and the best way to attract men, as seen in many other ads, is to have half naked or in this case completely naked women in their ads. This ad also touches on the idea that women are not seen as humans because the woman’s body is chopped to only show what is from the neck down; the most important parts of a nonhuman woman. 

The main difference seen in the most recent ads is that they seem to have gotten more sexual than later ads. Although many ads are extremely degrading to women, whether they are for women or not, these types of ads are working. These ads grab the attention of the public, and they have been working since the 1800s. The female bashing and objectification of women, unfortunately, has been a huge disservice to women. These images shape the minds of millions of girls, teen girls, and adults.

African American Women and Colorism

Women of all races are diminished in ads, but race can play a key factor in how women of color are shown in ads. African Americans are faced with harsh reality of colorism; lighter skin is deemed more acceptable in society. Although colorism affects black men and women, “these biases lead to greater harm for African-American women” (Mathews et al). Colorism is real, and it can be seen in ads that host celebrities. 

Gabourey Sidibe
Gabourey Sidibe

Gabourey Sidibe who stared in the 2009 movie Precious appeared on the front cover of Elle magazine. In the ad she looks lighter than her comparison photo. Many studies have shown that, on the one hand, the brighter the skin, the “higher [women’s] personal self-esteem and social capital.” On the other hand, their darker skin tones can lead to low self-esteem and social capital (Mathews et al). The subliminal messages hidden in these whitewashed ads can seriously damage a woman of color’s identity.

Ads tell people how to think and what they should think about. A Dove ad that shows three women, one dark, one of a medium tone, and the other is white or appear white. The three women are standing in towels with the darkest on the left, medium tone in the middle, and the lightest woman in on the right. Behind them is a wall with two long trips of paper with one that looks broken or damaged and says “before.” The other one says “after” and looks smooth. The Dove ad is advertising smooth skin after using their product. The problem is this: is it really just a coincidence that the darker women is standing in front of the damaged paper while the whitest woman is in front of the smooth clean paper? Below the women is a phrase that says “Visibly more beautiful skin from the most unexpected of places – your shower.” Just what exactly does that phrase supposed to mean? The darker woman is that “unexpected” place the ad is referring to.

Dove ad
Dove ad

The ad is indirectly saying that the darker woman is not beautiful, but she can become beautiful by using the Dove product. These images become embedded in the minds of young girls, and it is at that age that they start to physically and mentally destroy themselves. Although women of color after over 100 years are included in ads in somewhat positive ways, they have not benefited them much.

A lighter skinned woman is associated with being White, which is seen “as a standard of beauty” that can “negatively impact the psyche of an African-America man just as can suppress positive self-esteem in African-American women (Mathews et al). When young African American boys are bombarded with these whitewashed ads of Black women, they grow up to support and continue of colorism. For ads that relate to both White women and Black women, especially the oversexualized ads, young boys will grow to think there is nothing wrong treating women in degrading ways. The young girls will grow to probably be just like the women they see in the ads; they will allow ads to put them in those objectifying positions, and the women of color will turn a blind eye and let themselves fall victim to a culture of whitewashing.

Although there has been some changes in the portrayal of women in ads from the 1800s to 2016, but much has not changed. Ads have a purpose and message to deliver to their targeted audiences. This has been the case since before the 1800s during the sale of slaves. The emergence of advertisements brought along ideas of how women should look and act.

Objectifying ads like the ones from the 80s-90s continued on into the 2000s. In 2016, women are stilled faced with the same misleading images, and whitewashing has become an serious issue as well. Women of color are forced to believe that their darker skin is not beautiful. Ads further damage the images of women of color by making them appeal lighter than they truly are. In some ads where the women are not whitewashed, they are still victims of colorism because they are reminded constantly that their skin is not considered smooth or beautiful.





“The Definition of Commercial.” Dictionary.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 May 2016.

“Vintage Clothes/ Fashion Ads of the 1980s.” Vintage Clothes/ Fashion Ads of the 1980s. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 May 2016. http://www.vintageadbrowser.com/clothes-ads-1980s

“Vintage Clothes/ Fashion Ads of the 1990s.” Vintage Clothes/ Fashion Ads of the 1990s. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 May 2016. http://www.vintageadbrowser.com/clothes-ads-1990s

Edwards, Jim and Harrison, Jacobs. “26 Sexist Ads Of The ‘Mad Men’ Era That Companies Wish We’d Forget.” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 08 May 2014. Web. 02 May 2016. http://www.businessinsider.com/26-sexist-ads-of-the-mad-men-era-2014-5?op=1

Emergence of Advertising in America Database #A0204. “Emergence of Advertising in America: 1850-1920.” John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History. Duke University David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/eaa_b0072 

Emergence of Advertising in America Database #B0072. “Emergence of Advertising in America: 1850-1920.” John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History. Duke University David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library

Hanan, Ali. “Five Facts That Show How the Advertising Industry Fails Women.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 03 Feb. 2016. Web. 02 May 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/women-in-leadership/2016/feb/03/how-advertising-industry-fails-women

Jamieson, Kathleen Hall., and Karlyn Kohrs. Campbell. “Persuasion Through Advertising.” The Interplay of Influence: News, Advertising, Politics, and the Internet. Belmont, CA, USA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006. Print.

Jamieson, Kathleen Hall., and Karlyn Kohrs. Campbell. “What is Advertising.” The Interplay of Influence: News, Advertising, Politics, and the Internet. Belmont, CA, USA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006. Print.

Mathews, Tayler J., and Glenn S. Johnson. “Skin Complexion in The Twenty-First Century: The Impact Of Colorism On African American Women.” Race, Gender & Class 22.1 (2015): 248-74. ProQuest. Web. 9 May 2016.

Servedio, Christina L. “Sex in Advertising.” Sex in Advertising. University of South Florida, 14 Nov. 2002. Web. 07 May 2016.

Synder, Steven L. “Movies and product placement: is Hollywood turning films into commercial speech.” U. Ill. L. Rev. (1992): 301.




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