Selling Femininity - How Marketers Have Targeted Women through the Century

January 26, 2017


I remember sitting in a bar on a cold February evening, being dutifully patriotic and watching the mandatory 20 minutes of the Super Bowl I endure every year. I had my notepad (because football), my whiskey (because winter) and the wry smile a Budweiser commercial always conjures when BAM - there it was: a long, sleek, brightly colored shaft of Maybelline Rocket Volum’ mascara. 


"Holy shit!" I sputtered through my drink. 


The Super Bowl advertising cosmetics (and, later, tampons and other distinctly 'feminine' products) shouted loud and clear what economists have been whispering since the 1960s: women are the largest consumer demographic in the country. We account for 85 percent of all consumer purchases. 


 “Take that, patriarchy!” I thought to myself while dabbing bourbon off my shirt. “We’re here, you can’t ignore us!” I silently crowed to the millions of bros who no doubt rolled their eyes and had their own, very different, ‘what the hell?’ moments at seeing a Maybelline ad aired in one of America’s most coveted advertising spaces.


Because for cosmetics to break into Super Bowl air time meant not only that women were being acknowledged as a powerful economic force, but that women and non gender-conforming men make up a healthy slice of NFL fans. Professional football, one of the stalwart bastions of stereotypical American masculinity, was acknowledging the femininity of those fans; was saying “Hey there – I see you.



More important still, though, was the shape of those first two femme-oriented commercials: neither spoke to women to appeal to men. Neither used the threat of being unattractive to the male gaze to make a sale.


While women have been the target of a majority of commercial advertising since the mid 1800s (making and maintaining a home were exclusively feminine domain), it wasn’t until well after the millennium that women were consistently advertised to as independent – financially, socially, sexually – of men. In other words: that women were treated as though as in they may be interested in purchasing something for a reason other than to attract the opposite sex.


As women and femme products making their way into Super Bowl commercials, the inclusion of women of color and realistic-figured women in advertising, and the second annual #Femvertising Awards last fall show, marketing to American women has finally begun to shift from selling women a male fantasy to actually marketing products to women.


But it’s taken a helluva long time to get here. Here’s a look at the evolution of commercialized femininity – in all its often-oppressive glory.



Chlorodent 1950s Courtesy of Livejournal

Here we have a glowing example of women being sold a product based on the firm belief that the most important thing in her life is her relationship with a man.

Not only is this ad perpetuating the contemporary fallacy that a women must work to “keep” her man, but that doing so requires maintaining unreasonable hygiene standards - that it is her job to be superhumanly fresh at all times.

Then of course there’s the ever so subtle spider allusion – because heterosexual relationships are clearly based on women luring men into bed.



Aladdin 1950s Courtesy of Pinterest

While women of color were and still are frequently fetishized in advertising, in the 1950s and 1960s black Americans were also thrust into ads depicting the white ideal, like this Aladdin ad shows. Like Mattell’s solution to multiculturalism being a darker skinned Barbie-proportioned doll, ads like this sold both the notion that women were subservient to men and that white culture was the desired norm. 



SEGO Liquid Diet Food 1960s courtesy of Advertising to the American Woman: 1900 - 1999


The 1960s weren’t much more subtle, as this SEGO Liquid Diet Food ad shows. Not only is being attractive equated with being thin, but the motivating factor for slimming down is, again, what a man might think of a woman’s physicality.




1970s Tipalet Cigarettes courtesy of The Atlantic


The 1970s rang in multiple cultural shifts, particularly in terms of sex. While women were fighting hard to be seen as more than wives and mothers and beginning to be allowed more social freedom, this cigarette ad makes a crass double entendre more offensive by implying that women are still motivated by what a man has to offer.




1970s Ultra Sheen courtesy of the Huffington Post

The 70s did, however, embrace the empowered woman of color a la Angela Davis in many hair and beauty ads targeted to women. Advertising hair products to women of color that did not seek to straighten or lighten their hair was a major shift in mainstream advertising.




1980s PREMESYN PMS courtesy of Advertising to the American Woman: 1900 - 1999

Excellent! Men, even famous, celebrity men, care about the havoc premenstrual cramps and symptoms wreck! Oh, wait, no – they’re just excited that now there’s a pill treats all that feminine griping.



1990s Calvin Klein courtesy of Advertising to the American Woman: 1900 - 1999

Ah, the 90s: the hey-day of sexualizing women, of all ethnicities, in advertising. Again the male gaze and male fantasy are dictating what women should be inspired to buy – why else would this be effective? All there is to say here is “with Calvin Klein clothing I, too, can be an underage-looking nymph, and that’s what boys like so I’m in.”




You’d think we’d have come further, and in some ways we have – now we’re told “Because [We’re] Worth It” instead of “Because He Deserves It” – but mainstream marketing still has some catching up to do.



2014 Victoria’s Secret courtesy of AdWeek

Exhibit A: Yes, please sell bras by declaring a gaggle of unnaturally thin, photoshopped supermodels the “perfect body”, because we don’t have enough to be insecure about. Any and all points gained by not using an all-white cast are lost by lack of body diversity.

And yet...there’s hope



2014 Brawny Paper Towels courtesy of the Huffington Post

Here we have an image featuring women of different sizes, races, and ages proclaiming that, the paper towel that has a synonym for ‘strength’ built into its brand name, women are strong, too.


Even if we’re still the ones buying the paper towels to do an unfairly divided portion of housework and making $0.77** on the dollar.


by Haley Hamilton 

Bio: Haley Hamilton is a Boston-based freelance writer. She's appeared in DigBoston, Tales of the Cocktail, Skirt! Magazine, and elsewhere. For occasional bursts of laughter and indignation, you can follow her @saucylit. 






* Ok, here we go: sexism and advertising go together like peanut butter and jelly. This piece does not investigate the objectification of women in advertising – that topic deserves a dissertation or four – nor is the goal to highlight sexism, specifically. The goal here is to examine how women have been sold a male-developed femininity from which we have only very recently recovered. 

** or less, for women of color.

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