The Objectification of Women in Advertising

How Advertising Often Treats Women as a Commodity

Objectification. Getty Images

Since the introduction of advertising many centuries ago, women have been objectified, and in some instances, insulted or degraded. In 2010, a five-minute video featuring Jean Kilbourne went viral, racking up over 2 million views; it covered the very negative effects of advertising on women and girls.

As Jean mentions at the beginning of the video, things haven't gotten better; in fact, they've gotten worse.

And now, some six years later, we're still seeing the same patterns of objectification and the mindless use of semi-naked women in advertising campaigns.  

However, the problem has gone beyond sex. An image of a semi-naked woman in the seventies and eighties is not even close to a semi-naked woman today. With the advent of Photoshop, and with retouching now prevalent even when famous people featured in the ads do not want photo editing, the images of women that are flawless, and anatomically impossible, are harmful on so many levels.

The "Ideal" Woman in Advertising

Advertising, marketing, and the fashion industry have created a new type of woman that does not exist in the real world. You know here very well, but let's look at her main features:

  • This woman has no wrinkles, blemishes or scars; her skin is perfect.
  • She has impossibly long, smooth, and shapely legs.
  • Her waist so small it would make a Barbie doll jealous.
  • Her ample breasts and buttocks are gravity-defying miracles.
  • She has a head of silky, radiant hair that looks like CGI. 
  • Her eyes are dazzlingly bright.
  • Her teeth are beyond white. They are straight, perfect, and almost unreal.

Men from an early age are told to desire this woman. This is the woman featured in ads for perfumes and lingerie.

She is the centerfold in Playboy. She is the standard to set your life by.

Women, from the same early age, are told they must look like this woman. They should aim to have those long legs, that perfect skin, beautiful hair, and incredible body. 

Here's the problem; that woman does not exist, anywhere. She is the product of hours of in the makeup chair and days of photo retouching. Her waist is not that skinny since no woman with a waist that skinny can wear a D-cup without the aid of implants and/or surgery. Every woman has imperfections in her skin because every woman is human. 

The women in ads are not human. They are a creation of an industry obsessed with perfection, and selling products to women that they claim will help them achieve the impossible goal they have set. 

This is advertising's main function. Create a need. Then, provide something to fill that need. In this case, men drink certain brands of beer because they associate them with those impossible women. And women (and girls) buy certain clothes, foods, and makeup products in a vain attempt to resemble them.

This is the epitome of futility. You cannot have a woman who exists only in a Photoshop file. You cannot become a woman whose legs were created with the latest software.

And yet, this kind of advertising is pervasive because it appears to still work.

Why Does This Impossible Reality Work?

We all know it's false. Perhaps we don't know to what extent, but we really don't see women (and men) in real life looking anywhere near as good as they do in advertisements. Indeed, even side-by-side comparisons of before and after makeovers are nothing compared to before and after Photoshop effects. And yet, this kind of imagery continues to thrive.


The answer is...we want the dream. We want to think that maybe, just maybe, we can look like that if we buy the right product and eat the right food. Our subconscious tells us that if we buy the right beer or cologne, we may just attract the supermodel on the box. The chances are one in a million we won't.

But as Lloyd Christmas said in Dumb and Dumber, "So you're saying there's a chance?"

Can Anything Be Done?

Maybe. But it's a tough road.

Several brands, including Dove and Aerie, have tried to move away from typical images of perfection. They claim to be "Photoshop-free", and celebrate real, diverse women. Of course, they still use very attractive women in their campaigns, because at the end of the day, buyers are still superficial to a degree. They don't want to see ordinary people modeling clothes, just like they don't want to see regular guys and women in movies and on TV.

If you're working at an agency, you can steer the client away from typical, 'shopped' images of women. Remember, it is impossible for a client to buy a sexist, perfectionist ad if the agency doesn't present one. So, the first step agencies can take is to think more about what really drives people.

At the end of the day, what do women want to see?

Do they want to be bombarded with pictures of perfection? Most men don't buy underwear based on the Adonis body of the guy on the packaging. In fact, being different, bringing in humor, or something quirky is more likely to attract attention. Maybe it's time to treat women with a little more respect, and show them something beautiful on a body that is not 100% perfect. I think they can handle it.

Beer brands are, thankfully, moving away from semi-naked models as well. The craft beer movement is on the rise, and they don't need Playboy bunnies to help them sell. Sadly, the majority of men will still be attracted to cliched sexy images.

At the end of the day, this is something that will continue to cause debate. There will always be the objectification of both women and men in advertising. But it's better, and more challenging, to advertise without using the images. Remember why you got into advertising. Selling with sex is a no-brainer, but it's also brainless. Let's do what we can to make better, stronger ads that do not rely on sex.