Does this Shock You?


We live in a world of advertising. Have you ever wondered just how much we are personally impacted by what we watch on television, what we hear on the radio and what we observe in the streets? Do you notice the billboards, the ads, the posters in our daily life? When it comes to advertising, nothing is left to chance. Everything is a carefully thought out strategy. Consciously, or unconsciously, we are impacted by what we see in the world around us.

Let me take you back a few years when the prevailing idea in society was that a girl should get married and stay at home to cook and clean. It is only when looking back at those years’ advertising, you realize the extent to which it spurred this belief.

In the 1930s, Kellogg’s chose to introduce their new cereal to the world by portraying the image of a perfect woman who “cooks, cleans, and dusts” because of consuming the vitamins included in this product. Viewing this ad, it is impossible to ignore the startling contrast between the man, dressed in a suit coming home from work, and his wife, carrying a feather duster and dressed with an apron.

In the 1950s, Chase & Sanborn coffee chose to attract clients by depicting a woman being hit by her husband because she is not “store testing for better coffee”.

A couple of decades later, Tiparet issued an advertisement for its cigarettes with the slogan “Blow in her face and she’ll follow you anywhere”. On the posters, the woman is pictured below the man, gazing up at him in adoration. In the same decade, Mr. Leggs chose to advertise their slacks by having a man rest one of his legs on a woman’s head (presumably his wife) who is seen lying on the ground in the form of a carpet “she was ready to have him walk all over her”.

All of the above-mentioned examples are famous vintage ads. Many scholars have taken it upon themselves to study and analyse these advertisements. But why?

Because nowadays, such advertisements are shocking.

Advertisements have greatly changed since the years where domestic violence and female inferiority were at the heart of ad-campaigns. But when did this turning point happen? We don’t always think about it. Maybe we’ll open YouTube and watch a Calvin Klein ad without really paying attention to it. It’s no big deal, right? But it used to be: many of the things that we witness nowadays caused the greatest of controversies when they were first introduced.

In 1980, Calvin Klein launched its famous controversial advertisement starring Brooke Shields with the question “What comes in between me and my Calvin’s? Nothing.”

Does this shock you? No? Me neither. I think we’ve seen much more scandalous advertisements.  Back then, this ad was banned by ABC and CBS in New York for the insinuations it brought about.

It has been a slow and turbulent evolution that has brought us from where we were a few decades ago to today… Step by step, ad by ad, we are advancing towards a point in time where gender stereotypes will no longer be used.

In the late 70s, advertising entered the phase of the “superwoman”, as some call it. This was a woman who cared about her career and life outside of the house. One of the campaigns that best represents this ideal is Charles De Rizt’s perfume “Enjoli”, that states loud and clear that “She can bring home the bacon, and fry it up in a pan.” It advertised the “8-hour fragrance for the 24-hour woman”.

Many other ads with a similar pattern followed suite.

Let’s skip a bit ahead to see how the situation is right now, this exact time at which I am writing this article. Did anyone watch the Super Bowl this year or rather the Super Bowl commercials?

A lot of people are praising the half time ads. In particular Tide made a very discrete yet strong feminist ad, as it stars a man. Laundry makers usually only target women in their publicity as women were thought to “best reflect” the target market. This same year, Audi pitched pay equality in their commercial. Equality in the workplace is important. But so is equality at home. This year, both issues were addressed in front of millions of people.

Can you see how far we’ve come?

The answer is: extremely far.

Can you see how much further we need to go?

Maybe, but not everyone can.

According to the labour department, even though women represent 47% of the workforce, and a majority of women with kids are indeed employed, they still do much more of the housework. According to a research conducted by Unilever in mid-2016, only 3% of advertising features women in a leadership role, and 40% of women do not even identify with the way they were represented.

Every single ad depicting feminism is highly praised; each one makes a difference and represents a step towards a world of equality. We have a long way to go until the day where these ads will go unnoticed, when equality will be normality.


Elisabetta Torossian

Women in Business_Bocconi Female Students Association