How Sexism Perpetuates in Advertising: A Conflict Perspective

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How Sexism Perpetuates in Advertising: A Conflict Perspective

The Pervasive Problem

Sexism and other forms of systemic discrimination and prejudice are difficult to see in some instances, but in other areas, such as advertising, sexist ads are obvious. What obfuscates these ads is the reasoning for them, often expressed as "unintentional marketing to a specific consumer." Perhaps this is the case in some ads, but targeting an audience of women and promoting a product with sexist messages deserves some blame, especially when we know these messages harm women. There also can be no doubt that men benefit from sexist ads by reinforcing the social inequity between men and women while objectifying and reducing females to sexuality. For these reasons, we must view sexism through the theory of conflict.   

Sexism & Conflict

Sexism is a pervasive and mutable form of prejudice and discrimination impacting women in a variety of ways, but perhaps the most impactful is constant bombardment of messages promoting sexism through advertising. In accordance with conflict theory, advertising often maintains and reinforces social inequality between men and women by promoting and reinforcing traditional or status quo thinking about gender roles through messages embedded in media. These advertising messages indoctrinate women and men with women’s subservience to men by using women as sex objects and reflecting them in roles lacking equal status. Despite enormous research, education initiatives, and public policy reform, sexist messages promoting inequality continue to be present in the media, most notably in advertisements.

Conflict theory provides a clear perspective of gender inequality since this problem is dismissed as not real or as exaggerations. The problem of downplay and refusal to acknowledge the issue reveals at least some of the intentional nature of the problem since, without a doubt, there are gender inequalities. The use of the conflict perspective to show this problem should not be reduced to a "man fights woman" idea as conflict theory encompass a broad range of oppressive activities that are not gender-hate based. It is entirely possible and happens all the time, that a wife is oppressed by her husband without him or her even knowing it. If the expectation of the husband is for the wife to stay home because his religion dictates so, and the wife has been indoctrinated to believe this lifestyle is appropriate for the same religious reasons, then neither wife nor husband is aware of the oppressive nature of the marriage with regard to the wife. However, conflict theory roots in dominate groups exploiting subordinate groups and this relationship has the potential to make exploitation deliberate.   

The Roots of Sexism

Gender inequality appears universal in terms of societies. The question that arises with gender is how it fits into social conflict theory? Conflict theorists differ on this topic but most tend to believe that capitalism breeds male domination. Prior to industrialization capitalism allowed for the creation of wealth via physical attributes, such as adeptness at physical labor, and these residual reasons for male domination linger, having reinforced power for males.

The social conflict perspective evidences capitalism's contribution to sexism positing that dominant groups (men) "exploit" subordinate ones (women). From this point of conflict "gender is best understood as men attempting to maintain power and privilege to the detriment of women." The capitalism's nature produces economic and social inequality by creating a competitive landscape that is unbalanced with some groups (men) having more advantage than others (women) by "tacitly drawing on those residual reasons for patriarchy, and other inequality driven concepts such as racialism to enforce gender roles and practices."

Another factor to consider is that women, because of their place prior to industrialization, were prone to consumerism due to being responsible for the home. This factor also allowed men the ability to exploit women for free labor by having them work in the home to support the family without monetary gain. These factors seem logical when considering the fact that all women are subject to inequality no matter the group they belong to; and this inequality is worse in groups where inequality is high, such as fundamentalist religious groups.

The more fundamentalist the more gender inequality exists and despite the opposition to this concept that religion breeds gender inequality, social unfairness pertaining strictly to women arises from patriarchal residual reasons, such as second shift. 

The Second-Shift

While progress occurred and continues in many areas of society, the underlying messages of media continues to promote an idea of male superiority extending from the antiquated belief of men as heads of households. This idea benefits men not women by forcing work on them via gender roles.

Despite being part of the workforce, women still face housework and many aspects of child rearing above their paid work, forming what is known as “second shift,” which is not a new problem. This issue can be seen clearly with women and advertising. In this Sunlight detergent advertisement the message sent clearly identifies the woman’s job or role to do the dishes and by not doing them she is somehow failing in her marriage.

Sexist & Faux Feminist Advertising
1987 Lever Brothers Company (Fair Use)

What is interesting is that this advertisement is from 1987, and when viewed, many are inclined to think the ad an outdated form of advertisement: something from the fifties. Times change but often not the message as seen in this 2011, an advertisement for Joy dish detergent showed a woman wearing only plates.

Sexist & Faux Feminist Advertising
Still using laundry bars on your plates? You might as well wear them. (Fair Use)

This ad, originally published in June 2011, appeared in the Philippines and was intended to get consumers to use liquid detergent instead of laundry bars, but the sex appeal is obvious as well as the message that it is the woman’s job to do the dishes. Thus, reinforcing second-shift acceptability and inequality between sexes.

In some ways, this ad is worse as it conveys many messages about women beyond doing housework such as using the product makes a woman fashionable or that women need to a certain way, and this product somehow connects with that look. Advertising such as this reflects that women are sex objects and reinforces the idea that their looks are ultimately important.

Over time, the dominant male role in society creates numerous barriers for women to gain equality such as the messages sent in ads which reinforce for viewers the subordinate role of women. Opponents of this notion argue that ads are generated to appeal to the target audience, in this case women, but targeting the audience and reinforcing roles are not mutually exclusive. Keep in mind, as we stated before, these roles are tacitly reinforced having been ingrained in male and female thinking. 

The Sex Appeal Message

Women are not the only ones exploited by sexism; so too are men. Advertising often uses women to market products, using them strictly for sex appeal for men. Men are exploited for consumer selling while women are exploited as sexual objects, like trophies to be won – if you buy the product. In this 2001 Rogaine commercial, there is no pretense made about the message for sex appeal and maintaining a relationship.


What message is this ad delivering to men about women? Perhaps that success with dating and relationships is driven mainly by vanity. As much as this commercial plays on men’s desires it also reinforces ideas that women are only attracted to men that look a certain way and women need to look a certain way.

Most advertisers do not bother to mask sexism in their marketing. In this advertisement, a woman is shown with obvious sex appeal to sell tobacco. There can be no doubt of this ad's sexism since men are the largest users of smokeless tobacco products.

Sexist & Faux Feminist Advertising4
Date: 2008 Brand: Skoal From Stanford University (Fair Use)

This is not merely a risqué advertisement but a transmission of sexuall objectification of women. The use of sex is obvious, but less obvious is the message communicated to the intended audience of men. Notice the fishing equipment on the left of the picture intended to link the idea of sex with fishing, which is a male dominated recreational activity. Perhaps the most subtle but harmful message sent to young men is the idea that using women to sell products via sex is acceptable, thus reinforcing sexist ideas in young men. From a conflict perspective, one can see how this ad is used to exploit women as sexual objects but also how the reasons for sexism are tacitly advanced generationally.

The Impact of Sexist Advertising

There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that advertising communicates many messages that are sexist and harmful to women. In a study of western media, researchers found girls who watched western television in countries that previously lacked this form of media entertainment experienced increases in instances of anorexia and bulimia.

In Fiji, after American TV was first aired in 1995, researchers found that 74% of girls surveyed believed that they were too large or fat. The survey also showed that 15% of the girls reported taking part in binging and purging as a means of weight control. Prior to American TV, Fiji culture viewed physical beauty in terms of being robust and muscular. This study and impact of western media in Fiji shows how women are bombarded with messages about how they should look. It is by virtue of these messages women are stratified in society because they are constantly told how they should behave and how they should look. This keeps women trapped in their social position.

The Illusion of Progress (Faux Feminism)

From conflict perspective, we must also consider the deliberate nature of this thinking since gender equality ultimately detracts from the male’s ability to acquire and control wealth. Patriarchy in the context of Christianity for instance, negates all gender equality simply because it denies gender equality based on gender roles, thus limiting women to managing the home and other motherly or wifely duties.  

Women are the victims of sexism in advertising in a variety of ways and the latest movement of companies showing support is misleading. Lean Cuisine came under fire in 2018 for its advertising campaign “It All” signifying “Women Can Have it All.” The campaign failed miserably due to women voicing their concerns for “Having It All” meant being conditioned to be thin and look a certain way.

The messages of ads are noticed much more today than in the past and gives rise to faux feminism which is roughly defined as paying lip service to gender equality in order to market to women. Sometimes these messages are seen clearly in the Lean Cuisine campaign but other times the messages are difficult to determine.

Audi’s advertisement strikes hard at gender equality but is the message authentic or a clever means of selling? Would the ad’s perspective be different if told from the mother-daughter perspective of the same narrative? Perhaps but at least the message has shifted towards a more open discussion of equality.

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Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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