Objectification of women in advertising


Modern advertising is a huge business all over the world, hoarding millions and millions of dollars. It is time to face the music. Advertising is everywhere- in magazines, on television, on billboards, in movie theatres, on the Internet and countless places like the subway, metro and bus stations. In this day and age, advertisements are so common that one does not even stop for a second to realize that they are looking at them. As modernity takes over, advertisements have evolved in time and lack ethics and violate women rights. Furthermore, the ads that one sees today are sexist and quite discriminating to women. It is ironic because nobody minds the display of such ads. This might be because people have gotten used to looking at such advertising where the woman is objectified. They are less offended as portrayal of women as sex objects in media becomes more and more common. Take it like this, advertisements are an invasion of our minds and thus, shape the image of women in the society.


Jean Kilbourne, a feminist author, speaker and filmmaker and who is internationally recognized for her work on the image of women in advertising, asserts that such voyeuristic portrayal of women in advertising is negatively influencing the view men have of women in society, as well as how women view themselves[1]. She also claims that the constant bombardment of images and texts shown in the ads, suggesting the notion that ‘the thinner a woman is, the better she is’, has a strong impact that contributes to eating disorders and low self-esteem issues, especially in the female population.[2] To support her argument, she has written many books and made documentaries on this matter.


Objectification of women can be found in all aspects of society- apart from media and marketing- whether be it politics, school, work, etc. For example, a woman’s supposed line of work is the kitchen, household and starting a family. Not many think of a woman in a male-dominant profession such as a lawyer, firefighter, police officer and a scientist. Furthermore, almost everything we look at, see, and hear represents some sort of objectification and in most cases it is applied towards women solely and largely. For example, TV shows and movies, music, calendars and magazines. For instance, magazines like Playboy, that claim to “celebrate women’s beauty,” do nothing of the sort. Playboy does not run photographs of women, of female population of all ages and sizes, of the women who make up more than half of the population worldwide. What Playboy does in fact is to celebrate one microscopically small quota of the female gender. The women in the photographs are usually models of a certain physical size, carefully chosen to appeal to the male eyes. However, even these carefully chosen women are not presented as whole persons, with diverse characteristics. Instead they are often shown dressed and posed so as to minimize their individuality. This effect, furthermore, reduces a woman to a body, or parts of her body in some cases, as if she’s not a real or a whole person.


In a male-dominant society that has, for quite some time, ordered the way one sees and perceives, one is very voyeuristic towards women. Almost all of the advertisements (no matter what product, brand or service) are based on objectification of women. For example, vintage advertisements such as Hanes Mystrece stockings, shows a nude librarian, with a pile of books in front of her body. However, her legs are clad in Hanes stockings and a series of text basically says that by wearing Hanes stockings, women become a sensation- unforgettable, disarming and not so quiet. And another one that is equally as shocking is an ad by Kellogg’s PEP, vitamins for women printed in 1930s. The advertisement shows a woman smiling at her husband as though in admiration, while he holds her waist from behind, and gazing down at her through quite some intensity. However, the speech bubble that originates from the man is appalling. The text reads, “the harder a wife works, the cuter she looks!” The message that the ad is portraying is objectifying women as household workers. This is clearly defined by the woman’s attire, her apron and the duster in her hands, and the man’s suit and tie. Another alarming advertisement is by Leggs, a brand for menswear, published in the 1970s. The advertisement shows a man from waist-down, clothed in a full-sleeved shirt and tie and sporting wrinkle-free pants. His stance is dominant and he’s standing with one foot over a tiger skin rug, and another at the head. What is most disturbing is the woman’s head placed where the tiger’s head is supposed to be. One cannot refuse that it violates animal rights by such cruelty, as poaching of animals is deemed wrong and immoral. However, the woman’s head on the floor under the man’s feet is dehumanizing the female gender altogether. It basically shows that a woman’s place is at a man’s feet, that she is not human enough to stand beside the man. It also stresses the message that man is dominant and woman is inferior to the extent that her place is with the animals. It also promotes violence against women, as her head is attached to a dead animal, not even a living one.


There are many wrongs with these images, as one cannot refuse to acknowledge the unethical and unhealthy views it portrays. However, the objectification of women in the worst manner, that is, the concept of selling sex has been around ever since TV, cinema and advertising progressed. Many feminist authors accuse High Art for being just as responsible. It should not matter what religion or culture the objectified women belong to. What should matter are the damages that result from such advertising. Nobody stops to ponder over it, but women and young girls feel less dignified and ashamed of themselves. Ironically, however, one also cannot refuse to admit that the concept of selling sex has been one of the strongest marketing strategies in the Print Media.


Laura Mulvey, also a feminist author, wrote an article about the male-gaze in which she accused the cinema of being a voyeuristic platform that makes women the object of the male-gaze and subject to the norms of the male-controlled society. She claims that the man was shown as the dominant, as the cinema and advertisements were focused on the male audience only. By showing authority over women, men felt superior and strong. She also claims that women in Hollywood movies were merely represented to provide visual pleasure to men. [3] Hence, comes the objectification of women once again.


While examining various advertisements, one can see that the female models usually have what is considered today to be perfect bodies, that is; they are tall, with large breasts, a flat stomach and extremely thin figures. Their skin is inhumanly flawless and their teeth dazzling white, bright enough to make one go blind. It is no secret that before appearing in magazines and billboards, the pictures accompanying such advertisements undergo heavy editing in photo-editing software. As for the personality, the models usually look happy, have a good social and financial status and seem to be of Caucasian descent.[4] Yes, such people do exist; take a look at the fashion models. However, these ads seem to target a specific market, other than the ‘general public’ and they constantly promote the religion of superficiality and ultimately the society tosses those who do not live up to these standards. Think about the thousands and millions of photographs of women that one sees, every minute, every day, on TV, in magazines, on billboards and advertising. Now if one compares these images with the real women around them, women on the streets, at home or work, studying at school, colleges and university, the images do not match.


The world does indeed celebrate beauty, but it seems wrong to judge people based on standards of perfection. There is no specific standard of beauty and perfection. According to many societies, whether it is Pakistani or American, being thin is the height of beauty. Take a look at image one, for example. The model’s name is Amanda Kendrick and she modeled for Drop Dead Clothing. Despite her looking unhealthy and quite possibly anorexic, the sad thing about this advertisement is the message that it portrays and wants people to believe in, the notion that being skinny is beautiful. Advertisers should realize that the general public is not as thin as Amanda Kendrick, and that such portrayal of women objectifies beauty and sets a boundary to what can be defined as beautiful, because one automatically thinks being not as thin is ugly. Like Jean Kilbourne said, such images are quite harmful for young female audiences as they start to hate the way they look and try to become like one of these size-zero models.


In many of the ads objectification of women occurs through the association of her presence with her breasts.[5] Women may be only depicted with parts of their bodies, like their bare legs showing, or their chests and stomach while the men usually are fully clothed, or with their shirts off but with their faces shown. If both models are shown with their faces in the ads, the male usually looks at the camera and the female looks the other way. This is because when men and women appear in ads together, the women are shown to be weaker than the man. Women often have their heads or faces not shown in the advertisement, while parts of their bodies are totally in focus. Sometimes, the women are shown with their mouths shut, while the man has his open. This might be to suggest that women have not the right to say anything, and the viewer does not have to care about that. As long as she looks good, one should not care what she has got to say.


Take image 2 as an example. Here, the woman is looking away from the camera and the man is clearly seen as dominating her. The way he holds her is reminiscent of something along the lines of violence and force, clearly depicting his authority and power over the female sex, which is shown to appear weak and inferior. The woman’s eyes are closed, so is her mouth, which suggests that she does not have a say in anything. Also, notice the man’s open mouth. This might suggest the man’s superiority and authority over the ‘weak’ female sex. Also, another theory might be that if the man does not objectify the woman, he is not masculine enough. Laura Mulvey, in her essay[6], highlights that a man is subconsciously afraid of losing his genital organs, which sums up the definition of ‘castration anxiety.’ For example, if a woman was not objectified the way she was in the classic Hollywood films, then the male would not have felt as powerful. The unconscious idea is that a male’s power and dominance over a female is through his genitals, and that a woman threatens his dominance if she does not arouse him. The advertisement, image 2, clearly gives the viewer the notion that he does not have to care what the woman has to say as long as she ‘looks good’.


The mainstream opinion in the media world is “sex sells- pretty much anything.” Sex does sell indeed, though it might be through the image of the body, not through the actual physical act itself. And when sex is used to sell a product, the gaze is pretty much always male. And the women in such ads embodies a “to be looked at”-ness in which their subjectivity and personhood is denied. They simply exist as sexual objects to provide pleasure to the male viewers. Women are exploited and objectified by the media because their bodies sell almost anything and everything. Such horrendous ads promote such ideas that women can be bought and sold, that women are sex objects with the only purpose to bring pleasure to men, and the female form can be dehumanized and still sell. To further support the argument, take a look at image 3.


The most repulsive thing about the image is that this is not even an ad for a ladies product; it is for men’s perfume. What seems utterly irrelevant is the depiction of the nude female body. What has men’s perfume got to do with nude female body? Everything, it seems. This advertisement shows the men’s perfume bottle placed between the woman’s nude legs, and between her bare breasts, which will give the viewer an idea that when he uses the perfume, the chances are he will get laid. Another theory could be that they are not selling the perfume, but the woman’s body itself, an act clearly visible if you flip the pages of a Playboy magazine.


This ad, image 3, objectifies women and positions them in sexual submissiveness to advertise men’s perfume. Also, this advertisement shows the woman lusting after the man who wears the perfume. It makes the woman appear as a toy for men, something that gives them pleasure to see. It also highlights Laura Mulvey’s point on a woman’s existence was because of her being looked at-ness. This also explains the term, scopophilia, pleasure received through looking at other people’s bodies. With one look at the image, one can instantly tell that the purpose of this image, of the woman’s nudity, is to provide pleasure or enjoyment to the male eyes. It could also be that the woman’s nude body parts reminds one of the sexual activities. Also, the breasts and genital area of the model is shown instead of her face because of scopophilia, and the men focus not on the perfume but the woman’s erotic body. Doing so, they might believe that by using the perfume, they can get to the spot where the bottle is placed in front of the woman’s nude body. And this might as well get them up and running to buy the perfume, believing to have sexual intercourse if they use it.


Many people might argue about all of the above mentioned. The media representatives might not agree with the feminist theories, or might not want to stop the objectification of women through their advertisements because doing so can hurt their marketing strategies and downgrade their sales. The general male population might not even agree that they are objectifying women in their own homes and workplaces, as they have grown up observing the objectification of women and thus are less offended by it.


However, feminist scholars say that the objectification of women involves the act of ignoring the personal and intellectual abilities and capabilities of women; and reduces her value and role in society by existing only for sexual pleasure for the male audiences. Advertisements that objectify women make women appear as weak and submissive, and the male viewers often see women as sexual objects rather than human beings. Feminists have argued that such advertising makes women feel inferior, negative and depressed, and might give them the feeling of not being at par with society’s standard of beauty. They also debate that women are not just inanimate objects, to be looked at and the source for men’s pleasure, rather they are important and have a worth in society.[7]


No matter how useful the concept of objectifying women in marketing and media has proven to be, one cannot overlook the harm and damage it is causing to the society. Sex sells, indeed. However, there are many wrongs with that there are rights. It is time the world realizes that women are bodies as well as their minds and souls.



  1. Kilbourne, Jean. “Beauty and the Beast (of Advertising).” Ed. Diana George and John Trimbur. 4th New York: Longman, 2001. 193-196


  1. Redesigning women. Article, Jean Kilbourne. Media & Values, issue #49.


  1. Laura Mulvey, essay Visual pleasure and Narrative Cinema.
  2. What is ‘objectification’ and what’s wrong with it? Article, Julia Galef measureofdoubt.com
  3. Women and objectification: brain sees men as whole, women in parts (study). Article, Stephanie Pappas, Huffington Post



[1] 2 Kilbourne, Jean. “Beauty and the Beast (of Advertising).” Ed. Diana George and John Trimbur. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 2001. 193-196

[3] Laura Mulvey, essay Visual pleasure and Narrative Cinema.

[4] Kilbourne, Jean. “Beauty and the Beast (of Advertising).” Ed. Diana George and John Trimbur. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 2001.

[5] Kilbourne, Jean. “Beauty and the Beast (of Advertising).” Ed. Diana George and John Trimbur. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 2001. 193-196

[6] Laura Mulvey, essay Visual pleasure and Narrative Cinema.

[7] Kilbourne, Jean. “Beauty and the Beast (of Advertising).” Ed. Diana George and John Trimbur. 4th ed. New York: Longman, 2001. 193-196


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