Pining For… Substance

Delightfully Maladjusted

Flawless Deception: Examining the Portrayal of Females in Modern Advertising and Media

The New Cool

The modern world seems to have endless options for just about everything. Customizing the way we look is now easier than ever with the multitude of products that are being offered to give us the look we want. And it’s not just how we look, but how and where we live, what we eat, listen to and watch. With all of these options advertisers are churning out campaigns to make us feel that their product is the new best thing. In order to stand out in a sea of options images are becoming ethically questionable by creating an unobtainable ideal that we should strive for, not simply a product we need or may enjoy. The questionable part is that most of us are incapable of achieving these ideals when measured to the enhanced and staged portrayals we are bombarded with, whether it is the perfect body, job, car or home–or worse– all of it. Advertisers are essentially sending out invites to a party we cannot get in to, but they want us to pay for the chance that we might get in. Picture being turned away at the door of a popular nightclub because you don’t meet the criteria of the latest version of cool—and not just for one infraction, the message now is that the whole person from top to bottom and their accompanying life situation must, in fact, rank high on the acceptable measure of the new concept of cool, whatever that may be for the time being. Many of these standards that saturate our media are set and enjoyed by the young, beautiful and financially carefree. These standards are impossible to meet and the pressure created is encouraging a self hating, neurotic and insipid population.

The Illusion of Choice and the Perfect Life

Advertising has changed over the decades, but the message has remained the same for women: physical perfection– as determined by mainstream media — is the goal.  The messages sent tell girls and women that in order to have access to all these wonderful choices in life women must get as close to physical perfection as possible. Failure to be attractive to men will result in loneliness, reduced job opportunities, reduced chances for a family, and an utterly bland life. Sociology professor and researcher Erin Hatton found that, “In the 2000s there were 10 times more hyper sexualized images of women than men, and 11 times more non-sexualized images of men than of women”, (Hatton, 2011).

Part of the ethical issue here is the illusion of choice. Since the women’s movement advertising is no longer portraying women in obvious demure, subservient roles. The portrayal is now of the choice to be any kind of woman you want — as long it still appeals to men. Women have been freed to dress provocatively, work full time, manage the household and hang with the men while mucking around in misogynistic rhetoric that is commonplace in multiple forms of media. A content analysis of magazine advertising from 1950 to 2000 conducted by John Mager and James Heleson concluded that the effect of the feminist movement on advertising perspectives may have been less than helpful:

The arguments presented by the feminist movement may have been too compelling for the U.S.culture to ignore, resulting in objective differences in role portrayals from those of the prefeminist (traditional) era. However, the ads we reviewed indicate a co-optation of the feminist desire for sexual freedom by increasingly portraying women in a sexually exploited manner (Mager & Helgeson, 2010).

The perception being propagated is that this new strong woman doesn’t want chivalry or even good manners; courting is now a ‘hot’ contest judged by men and sadly other women. The hottest wins a man, personality and values are not as important.

The perfect woman is supposed to be demure but assertive and independent, but not so much so that she can financially support herself. This new strong, sexually assertive woman is still expected to earn less money in order to keep male egos in tact and society right side up, all while flashing a coy smile, pouty lips and bedroom eyes. Jacqueline Scott, Professor of Sociology at Cambridge University and an expert in women’s changing roles in society shares, “While successful men are often happy to marry a woman who will be less ambitious, successful women tend to marry men who are their economic equals”, (Rice, 2010). 

The National Organization of Women asserts, “…Pretty much every day of the year, the mainstream media promote women as eye candy, valued for little more than their desirability and eagerness to please. Until the media and the advertising industry develop a newfound respect for women, the struggle to be taken seriously and viewed as equals will continue”, (Bennett, 2003). The debate of the portrayals of women in advertising is a global one, in 2011 Brazil’s first female president, Dilma Rousseff, expressed concern about an ad showing Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen using her feminine wiles to manipulate her husband after running up the credit card and crashing the car, (, 2011). 

This perfect woman portrayal is an impossible ideal to achieve, if not altogether illogical. Super mom is a relatively new concept, in that she is not just a mom. Super mom has morphed into super woman. Super woman works full time (in an exciting career), has a family that she takes care of, a home that is never awry (and tastefully decorated) and manages to balance all this with ease and just enough sex appeal to still make her husband happy. This is not an antiquated ideal; for instance, this recent Electrolux appliance commercial gets right to the super woman point and with a familiar Bewitched jingle in the background.


   Recent research conducted byUniversityofWashingtonsociology graduate student Katrina Leupp has found that women who subscribe to the supermom mentality are more likely to suffer from depression when their expectations are not met. Leupp warns, “If you think you can have it all, don’t”, (, 2011). Additionally, research was conducted and published in the Journal of Advertising Research showing that women would respond favorably to a shared portrayal of household duties in advertising, the researchers explain:

   A major finding of this study indicates that, when averaging over all segments of the  women’s market, an egalitarian positioning is favored over either a superwoman or a traditional positioning. Particularly noteworthy is the strong preference for the   egalitarian over the superwoman positioning. This finding indicates a clear message             to advertisers. A theme that expresses the sharing of household responsibility is one  of the superior positionings of the future for appealing to many cohorts of the female  market, (Jaffe & Berger, 1994).

According to the majority of observed advertising, this perfect woman is supposed to be thin, youthful, have Caucasian features, and most importantly, have access to disposable income to buy all the things needed to achieve perfection. The entire concept is preposterous, but girls, women and boys and men are buying into it, quite literally. Jean Kilbourne is a recognized pioneer in the research of several areas of advertising, including women’s portrayals. She has this to say about the supermom/woman image:

   There have been some changes in the images of women. Indeed, a “new women” has   emerged in commercials in recent years. She is generally presented as superwoman, who  manages to do all the work at home and on the job (with the help of a product, of course, not of her husband or children or friends), or as the liberated woman, who owes her   independence and self-esteem to the products she uses. These new images do not   represent any real progress but rather create a myth of progress, an illusion that reduces complex sociopolitical problems to mundane personal ones, (Kilbourne, 2011).

            The second part of the ethical concern with this is the age at which girls are being exposed to these perfect portrayals. In her eye opening documentary Killing Us Softly, Jeane Kilbourne informs us that, “Girls feel good about themselves up until around the age of 9, but once they hit puberty, they hit a wall.” What is happening after age nine?   


Over Sexualized Youth

            Young girls are getting the message through media that it is time to start growing up sooner and the pressure starts building to look perfect and be desirable. For example, look at these images of popular child actresses from the 1980s:

Image Image

Now compare the two images below to these. The two young girls in the photos below were both 12 years old at the time the photos were taken; these photos were taken within the last ten years.

Image Image

            The second photo is an advertisement for a Marc Jacobs dress. Not only does the designer and retailer not recognize an issue with such a plunging neckline on a tween dress, but sought to enhance it by having the 12 year old wearing it pose in a suggestive way.  Advertisers are still subscribing to the sex sells mentality, even if the products are for children. But how effective is this approach? Recent research has shown that:

            Attempts to include sex and violence in advertising and programming to make products    and brands more ‘‘attention grabbing’’ and memorable does not work Bushman and  Bonacci (2002). This work has been confirmed by Parker and Furnham (2007) who have  found that ‘‘sexual’’ advertisements were no better recalled than ‘‘non-sexual’’    advertisements for similar products (Furnham & Paltzer 2010).

            Clothes are not the only must haves for young girls. Beauty products are being geared towards young girls earlier than ever. Consider Geo Girls, a line of cosmetics and skin care specifically designed for the 8-12 year old market, available at Wal-Mart and other retailers. Geo Girl describes its products as:

            A brand committed to a life stage and not a specific   age. geoGiRL was created to be a      positive, healthy experience for “beauty beginners,”. When an individual girl decides—       with her parent’s permission—that it’s time to begin experimenting with makeup and  skincare products, we believe it is important for her to have a high-quality, natural,    mistake-proof, appropriate product to use along with the information she needs to   develop good habits and proper hygiene. geoGiRL is not about overpowering her  natural beauty with lots of heavy, inappropriate makeup. It just brings out and celebrates   her best (, 2012).

            The words in bold are sending a clear message: looking less than perfect is a mistake. Although Geo Girl states that the mistake-proof refers to the way the products are designed by alleviating the chance of applying too much. This is confusing because the products are supposed to go on sheer and appear very subtle so in theory even if a girl did go overboard it shouldn’t be a problem. Developing good habits and proper hygiene as an eight year old should imply brushing ones teeth and hair, bathing regularly and wearing clean clothes. The message being sent here suggests that appearing enhanced and smelling fragrant are essential and can be achieved with make-up and perfumed body spray. The makers of the Geo Girl products emphasize throughout the web site that their intention is to offer a subtle beauty enhancer to girls who are starting to become interested in these types of products. Another aspect that is troubling about this is the thought that if Geo Girls products, “…go on super-sheer and see-through to give young skin a healthy, natural glow…[and]…do not offer intense, full coverage formulas”, what is the standard beginning at age 13? It seems that at age 13 the thought of considering a product such as the Geo Girls line should be expected, but currently it would seem that a girl of 13 has already been initiated into the world of make-up and primping for up to five years already.

            Over sexualizing youth is certainly not a new issue, as these old ads below show.    

Image  Image

            The old ad for Love’s Baby Soft appears to be more of an illustration than an actual photo, but French Vogue had no reservations about publishing sexually suggestive photos of a 10 year old as shown below. Several ethical questions immediately came to mind: first, why is a ten year old modeling high-end fashion in an adult woman’s magazine, and even if this is the children’s version of Vogue (Vogue Enfants) who is buying stiletto heels for their young daughters? Additionally, why didn’t anyone consider the ethical boundaries created by these incongruous photos? These images are fairly straightforward in their intention; girls playing dress up do not have perfect hair and make-up and the clothes and shoes would normally appear baggy and unfitted. When we consider how many people are involved in producing a fashion magazine it is appalling to be witness to such a complete lack of ethics by so many. Some have defended the editorial spread as subject to cultural interpretation, but in our interconnected world is that a cop out, and in what culture is sexualizing a ten year old acceptable?  


            The French are certainly not alone in their ethically ambiguous treatment of ten year olds. In 1975 photographer Gary Gross took nude photos of ten year old Brook Shields, with permission from her mother. These photos show Brooke with make-up on and hair done, nude and oiled in a bathtub. A cropped version is seen here:


            Several of the poses are overtly sexualized as she stands; glistening in the bathtub with a vixen stare at the camera and in one she is holding a removable shower head suggestively. These photos of ten year old Brooke were commissioned by Playboy Publications for a book entitled, Sugar and Spice. In 2009 the book Sugar and Spice was available for purchase on, the editorial review read:

            “A book of nude photography by various photographers. This book includes some great    photos by Garry Gross of a young Brooke Shields.”(Reisman, 2009)

            In the years after Shields actually took this issue to the courts requesting to purchase the negatives of the photos in order to remove and/or prevent further distribution, but the court sided with the photographer. “The actress had sued Gross in 1981, tearfully testifying that the pics embarrassed her, but a court decision in 1983 gave Ross the okay to display the photos”, (Reisman, 2009). The photos remain in use today and have made it into art exhibitions at venues such as The Guggenheim Museum under the guise of pop art as recently as 2007. In 2009 Scotland Yard shut down an exhibit showcasing the photos atTateMuseuminLondonbecause they determined the photos violated obscenity laws.

            Not long after these photos were taken Shields starred in the 1978 film Pretty Baby in which she portrays a prostitute’s daughter who then becomes a prostitute herself while a photographer sets up an auction for her virginity, the then 12 year old Shields has full frontal nude scenes and is portrayed in sexual situations. The French director of the film, Louis Malle, had this to say in 1978, “My God, this strange impulse of a man’s being sexually aroused by children has been apart of every civilization. That’s a fact-I am sorry to say- a sociological fact…let me make clear that I am a filmmaker not a social worker. My cinema is not rhetorical and I do not send messages”, (Reisman, 2009).

             This film was nominated for an Academy Award. The Playboy Sugar and Spice photo shoot and the movie Pretty Baby were intertwined from the beginning; any misinterpretation of the intention of these photos by those involved is feigned. Dr. Judith Reisman, a leading researcher on pornography and law professor, had this to say about Pretty Baby:


            Playboy laughingly describes the paying child rapist as a “cherry piker” and

            cynically treats this 1978 effort at mainstreaming child pornography as an intellectual and  artistic breakthrough for plebian Americans”, (Reisman, 2009).

            Malle may have been correct in his summation of mankind, but even if his assertion is true in a civilized society it is our duty to provide an environment in which all humans, child and adult have some autonomous rights to their childhood and basic respect. Civilized humanity has, based on logical and commonly understood interpretation, fought to extend childhood. Consider the legal ages at which one can work, drive, drink, or vote. Humans are living longer than ever and back breaking agriculture work is no longer the norm for the majority of us in modernized communities. These advances and changes have given childhood a longer stage and the understanding that while biologically humans may be reproductively mature at ages well below 18, in a civilized society we understand that the mental maturity to decide to engage in such acts and the consequences of those acts are not strong in children or young teens. Such acts should not be condoned, or worse, advocated by adults who are in power positions trying to sell products or provide access to ethically devoid excitement for the unspoken desires and amusement of some men. Malle’s statement is a poignant example of the wide range of ethical behavior and how influential personal ethical choices can be regardless of the freedom or limitations of the society one lives in. And incidentally, many men may be confusing the boundaries between a natural instinct to peer at young fecund women on occasion during typical interactions versus media and advertising’s promoted pursuit of such activities openly or subliminally planted for daily consumption in television, movies, video games, magazines and ads for all types of products. We tell men in our society that engaging in sex or contemplating sex with underage teens is wrong, but then ads like this appear in the windows of stores in local malls or in mainstream magazines:

 Image13 year old Elle Fanning in Marie Claire Magazine

 Image15 year old model for Urban Outfitters (and Honda apparently) this image was sold on t-shirts at the store (This model’s parents have since sued Urban Outfitters)

            These polarized messages are further blurred when grown women dress as girls or children’s characters in a sexualized way. The photo below is a costume and it is exceptionally sad considering the mockery it is making of the Girls Scouts of America and the empowering agenda that organization stands by for girls and women. Boys are being taught from a young age onward that girls are a recreational activity, a possession or an object to win, judge or abuse; a mere tool for their entertainment and/or an outlet for misplaced rage.  “As girls and women are increasingly portrayed in popular culture according to limiting gendered stereotypes, it is easier for them to be viewed as simplified objects, not as complex individuals with an array of talents and interests”, (Curry & Choate, 2010).


            How far does the pendulum of ethics swing in terms of exposing boys and  men to these images? Consider the video game Rapelay, released in 2006 by Illusion Games. The object of this game is to rape a teenage girl, her mother and sister. The game was created and distributed inJapan, where it is legal. It has been banned in many countries, including theUS, but a quick search on Google shows several options to download the game for free and several clips available for viewing on YouTube.


            The global connectedness and access that the internet brings into our homes has whittled away any assumption that the youth in our culture are not exposed to such things — this is certainly no game. The over sexualizing of youth is damaging to all people. Boys and men are sent conflicting messages about misogyny and the objectification of girls and women, and girls and women are encouraged to accept and strive for this falsehood by focusing on being as sexy as they can as early as possible with the saturation of these images and messages all day, every day.


What Can be Done?

            This paper has presented the unethical choices of some, but there are advocates in our society fighting for media literacy. And some companies are trying to promote awareness as well. For example, Dove launched its Real Beauty campaign in 2004, promoting a more realistic view of women. Some of the ways Dove attempted to achieve this included ads with more diversity and body shapes, and the Evolution YouTube video which shows how Photoshop and expert hair and makeup contribute to the perfect looking women we see in advertising and media. Although Jean Kilbourne urges women to be cautionary because Dove’s campaign still implies that we need their products and the likelihood of continuing the campaign may very well depend upon how much soap is sold, (Kilbourne, 2010). Scenarios in which we could expect more from corporations and advertisers may be naïve. Dove is still active in their campaign and as of 2011 the brand has this to say:

            In 2011, Dove® released the findings of its largest global study to date on women’s relationship with beauty—The Real Truth About Beauty: Revisited. The study revealed  that only 4% of women around the world consider themselves beautiful, and that anxiety  about looks begins at an early age. In a study of over 1,200 10-to-17-year-olds, a majority  of girls, 72%, said they felt tremendous pressure to be beautiful. The study also found that  only 11% of girls around the world feel comfortable using the word beautiful to describe their looks, showing that there is a universal increase in beauty pressure and a decrease in   girls’ confidence as they grow older. Though Dove® efforts have moved the needle in a  positive direction, there is more to be done, (, 2011).

            Another wonderful organization that is promoting media literacy for girls is Girl Scouts of America. Parents can purchase a media awareness journal called the MEdia Journey Book. “Cadettes put the “me” in MEdia as this journey encourages them to explore the great big multi-media world around them and then remake media to better match the reality they know”, (, 2012). In addition to the media awareness journal there are patches girls can earn for their efforts in media awareness.


            The Middle School Journal for educators offered this approach for the school setting:

School counselors can provide large-group guidance for students that assists in the development of media literacy, empathy, and leadership skills (Choate & Curry, 2009). According to the Media Education Foundation (2004), educators should teach media literacy in four steps:

  1. Students learn how to identify harmful cultural images.
  2. Students deconstruct underlying messages in the images.
  3. Students practice ways to actively resist the messages.
  4. Students work to change the messages in their schools and communities.


            Just some of the organizations that are championing for media literacy include The Center for Media Literacy, The National Organization of Women, Media Literacy Education Foundation, PBS, and Strong Women Strong Girls. There are strong advocates who are active in literacy campaigns such as Jean Killbourne ( and Dr. Judith Reisman ( . But these organizations and advocates cannot accomplish this immense task alone. The most important part of media literacy begins in the home. Parents are taking ethical stands against clothing like this:

ImageIt reads: I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother does it for me (JCP has since discontinued the shirt and issued an apology)

 Parents were outspoken about this padded push up bikini top target at 7-14 year old girls. The company has since renamed the top to just “The Ashley”.


            It is important that parents and educators let boys and girls know that their value is not derived from things or appearance. Additionally, and perhaps even more importantly it is critical that all people, especially children, begin to be aware of the deception in media– just as early as media begins to deceive us.


FURNHAM, A., & PALTZER, S. (2010). The portrayal of men and women in television advertisements:. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 51, 216-236.

Mager, J., & Helgeson, J. (2010, April 25). Fifty Years of Advertising Images: Some. Springer Science+Business Media, pp. 238-252. Retrieved March 14, 2012, from the EBSCO Host database.

Yoder, J., Christopher, J., & Holmes, J. (2008). ARE TELEVISION COMMERCIALS STILL ACHIEVEMENT. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 32, 303-311.,8599,2096771,00.html


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