In Depth Society, 25/09/2019

Sexist Advertising Worldwide: from Origins to Present Day

“I gave it to your neighbor for free. Would you like me to give it to you too?” “She’s a great lay!” “It’s getting harder.” Discriminatory ads that advertise completely unrelated things (i.e. the internet, ceramic tiles, concrete, etc) with the help of a naked body, stereotypes and other sexualizations has become a common practice for the Ukrainian advertising market.

The definition of advertisement. The pros and cons of advertising

According to the Oxford dictionary, an advertisement is a “notice or announcement in a public medium promoting a product, service or event or publicizing a job vacancy.”

Based on this definition, advertising is the art of promoting a product or service in any media form. On the one hand, advertising is primarily a useful medium. It gives both big and small companies the opportunity to reach a wider audience. But on the other, despite the benefits of advertisement, there are occasionally some extremely negative effects.

Sexism is one of the pressing issues in the realm of advertising which continues to persist.

The definition of “sexism” and “sexist advertisements.”

According to guidelines on sexist advertising which were created by the Center of Gender Culture with the financial support of the EU, “sexism is the concept and practice of discrimination and degrading of a person on the basis of gender, based on demonstrating the preferences of intellectual, physical, creative and other characteristics or abilities of one person or a group of persons in relation to another person or a group of persons.”

“Sexist advertising is an advertisement that violates a person’s dignity on the basis of gender in context, or in combination with signs of physical characteristics, disability, social status, labor activity, family status and family responsibilities, maternity and paternity, nationality, race, political preferences, religious belief, other types and forms of socio-economic and personal relationships.”

Sexist advertisements: origin to present day

Advertising has been sexist particularly towards women since the first advertisements appeared. The history of sexism in advertising can be dated back to the beginning of the 20th century when the marketing industry was primarily focused on the housewife, in particular, her house duties and taking care of her family members.

According to Gender, Sexism and Stereotypes in Advertising research by Miranda Bush, Marin Nagelberg and Alex Campbell, in both print ads and black-and-white advertisements that were broadcasted on television, those from the 1950s are regarded as the most widely known examples of sexism. There were even some ads which advocated men beating their wives, such as a 1950s ad from Chase & Sanborn Coffee Company which depicted a woman being turned over and held by her husband whose hand was raised to slap her because her husband had found out she was not “store-testing for fresher coffee.”

The theme of a woman’s devotion to her husband continued through the 60s and 70s.

Alongside this evolved the “spicy” role of a woman enhanced by societal changes and the same trend was reflected in advertisements. An example of this is found in the 1970s “saucy spuds” ads in which a younger woman is shown in a sexy maid’s outfit serving a man his dinner, after which it is implied that she is his “dessert” and he is chasing after her.

The 1980s are considered to call “Supermodel Era” that’s why the advertisements feature these women who were idolized by both men and women for their beauty. Examples were Christie Brinkley on a beach in a low cut monokini for MasterCard, Elle Macpherson in a bikini for Taurina Spa Sparkling Water, and Carol Alt in her bra and underwear for Hanes. The advertisements of the 1980s began the use of women for purely their bodies to sell products, although the still incorporated idea that they were dumb and dependent had been long before established in the early 1900s.

In the 2000s, the advertisements became extremely sexy and started oversexualizing the female body. This was the time when Victoria’s Secret ads were introduced, featuring toned supermodels sporting lingerie, such as Tyra Banks. In these sexualized images, women are often seen as objects there solely for the purpose of male consumption. They are portrayed as always willing and wanting to have sex.

Oversexualization and sexism in advertising is not something that is only related to women. Advertisements involving men often rely on and promote hypermasculinity; all of the men are tough, extremely muscular, never have shirts on, they are motivated by sexual situations, and are not emotional.

All in all, gender in advertising is often portrayed in the extreme. The women displayed in advertisements are portrayed as the standard of what a woman should be, extremely sexy and fitting, meet society’s vision of beauty. Meanwhile, men are portrayed in advertisements as being hypermasculine.

It isn’t easy to resist such stereotypes which are imposed on us and one should not let such images dominate our lives.

How sexist advertising is fought against in the UK and in other countries?

Since June 2019, The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) which is the sister organization of The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the UK’s independent advertising regulator, has banned harmful gender stereotypes in ads.

The new rule states that advertisements must not include gender stereotypes that are likely to cause harm or serious or widespread offense.

According to the document, using the idea of a typical female and male appearance is banned, as well as associating certain qualities, activities, happiness and success with physical appearance or to show how gender limits a person’s capabilities. In particular, in British advertising, there can no longer be women who do not know how to park a car and men who cannot change a diaper for a child. The ban includes, for example, a scene in which a woman is tidying up while a man is lying on a sofa.

The innovations have also affected the advertising of children’s goods and services. It isn’t allowed to show young children with an emphasis on the fact that the boy is brave, while the girl needs to be handled with care. It is forbidden to advertise products exclusively for boys or girls. Gender stereotypes “limit the choice, aspirations and opportunities” of children, and can be enhanced by advertising, which plays a role in “unequal gender outcomes,” the regulator says.

Only social harm-imposed stereotypes are banned. Meanwhile, the image of glamorous, attractive, successful people leading a healthy lifestyle does not fall under the ban. Advertising can still show women or men who shop or men who work with their hands.

The reason for introducing the new rules was the reaction of society to some British advertisements. Among them, a poster for a Protein World weight loss drink, which showed a bikini-clad model and the inscription, “Are you ready for the beach season?” This campaign resulted over 70,000 protest signatures for the petition demanding the removal of the advertisement.

CAP also conducted its own study, during which representatives of different social groups were shown. One of them was a TV advertisement of Aptamil infant formula dated 2017 where a girl is shown as a future ballerina while a boy as a future mountaineer.

Then CAP held public consultations, in which specific proposals were formulated to ban harmful gender stereotypes in advertising, supported by evidence collected by the ASA. The advertising industry generally responded positively to the law and agreed on the need to review the standards.

“Our evidence shows how harmful gender stereotypes in ads can contribute to inequality in society, with costs for all of us.  Put simply, we found that some portrayals in ads can, over time, play a part in limiting people’s potential.  It’s in the interests of women and men, our economy and society that advertisers steer clear of these outdated portrayals, and we’re pleased with how the industry has already begun to respond,” Guy Parker, Chief Executive of the Advertising Standards Authority, said.

Introducing new advertising principles, the UK joins such countries as Belgium, France, Finland, Greece, Norway, South Africa and India, which already have relevant laws aimed at preventing gender discrimination in ads. In Norway, for example, the law prohibiting sexism was adopted in 1978. The Act against Gender-Based Violence, adopted in Spain in 2004, prohibits the display of degrading images of the female body in advertisements. Meanwhile, Austrian codes rule images that show human sexuality as discriminatory.

During the last few years, Ukraine joined a worldwide initiative in fighting against sexist advertising.

When did protest movement against sexism in advertising start in Ukraine?

In Ukraine, the movement against sexism in the media and advertising started in March 2006 with the “Stop Sexism!” action, held in Lviv, at the initiative of the Woman and Society Research Center.

Which organization in Ukraine is responsible for opposing the sexist advertising?

To counter sexism in advertising, the Industrial Gender Committee on Advertising NGO was created in Ukraine, in 2011. This association deals with handling customers’ complaints and education. The Committee brings together professional marketing associations and advertisers, gender organizations that have signed the Non-Discriminatory Gender Advertising Standard, which is a mechanism for self-regulation of the advertising market and the formation of a culture of marketing relationships. Its development takes into account national and international requirements for the professional activity of marketing and advertisers’ samples of relevant standards, codes, memoranda, regulatory support and practical experience in implementing equal rights and opportunities for women and men in Ukraine.

Criteria of sexist advertising

Sexism characteristics include the following:

1. An image of a naked human body that has nothing to do with the advertised product;
2. Treating a person as an object to dispose of;
3. Emphasizing the dominance of men over women and/or vice versa;
4. Reproduction of gender stereotypes – stereotyped female images in advertising such as “Housewife,” “Caring Mom,” “Victim,” “Goddess,” “Decoration,” “Wild Cat” etc.

According to guidelines on sexist advertising, created by the Center of Gender Culture, there are the following types of visual sexism:

Eroticism means showing the whole body or its intimate parts, posture (lying or half-lying down), context (among men’s attributes – for example, cars). It has the effect of reinforcing the idea of passivity, subordination, dependence and defenselessness of a woman towards a man.

Objectification is the representation of a woman, a woman’s body as part of a product advertised for a male consumer.

Faceism consists in significantly different ways of portraying men and women: in the first case, the focus is on the head and face, in the second – on the body and its parts. Men are portrayed as experts and women as beauties or decoration, emphasizing the beauty of a certain part of the body.

Machismo considers as male dominance over women and over-humiliating them.

Monitoring of Sexist Advertising in Kharkiv.

For the second consecutive year, in order to prevent the creation and distribution of sexist advertising and marketing products, Monitoring of Sexist Advertising was held in Kharkiv as part of The Center of Gender Culture as a Platform for Empowerment of Women and Youth EU project.

This year, about 60 volunteers took part in monitoring adverts. In March 2019, after taking part in specialist training, they were involved in the analysis of advertisements to scrutinize if they had any signs of sexism.

According to Daria Nagaivska, the monitoring’s coordinator and coordinator of Modern Woman project, the event’s organizers got 24 reports, 20 of which were given to the Industrial Gender Committee and nine of them were found to be discriminatory.

Natalia Savytska, the regional representative of the Industrial Gender Committee on Advertising in the Kharkiv region, says that after receiving the reports, the Committee’s representatives inform advertisers that their advertisements are considered discriminatory. If there is no feedback, information is submitted to the State Service of Ukraine on Food Safety and Consumer Protection. This state institution is responsible for fines and administrative prosecution of advertising market entities.

Anna Pastukhova, principal specialist of trade, work and services, advertising monitoring of the State Service of Ukraine on Food Safety and Consumer Protection of the Kharkiv region, notes that the State Service monitors implementation of Law of Ukraine on Advertisement, article 7 and 8, concerning prohibition of displaying information about human origin, social and property status, race and nationality. In accordance with paragraph 27 of the Law on Advertisement, in case of identifying the violation, a fine amounted to a five-time cost of the displayed advertising is imposed. In case if it’s impossible to determine the value of advertising distributed in violation of the requirements of this Law, advertisers will be fined the amount up to 300 tax-free minimum incomes. The decision on fines is made by the State Service of Ukraine on Food Safety and Consumer Protection.

According to Anna Pastukhova, during 2018, eight complaints were received, four cases were filed and four decision on imposing fines were adopted.

Daria Nagaivska compares that last year they got 87 reports while this year they received 24, which is four times less than last year. This is due to the fact that the advertising market is becoming more civilized and less sexist advertising is observed. However, monitoring was held in March-May when most of the advertising space was occupied by political advertisements due to Ukraine’s presidential election campaign.

Natalia Savytska says that it’s more common to display the very women’s body for Ukraine. There is a point that with the help of sexist advertising it’s easier to sell goods or advertise service. It’s still generally believed that the more shocking the ad is, the more attention it attracts. Beauty, bank and repair services use sexist advertisements more often.

What media spreads more sexist advertisements and considers the most dangerous for society?

Sexist advertising is widely spread through the Internet and influences kid’s conciseness as they have access to the world web. What is more, it’s hard to define advertiser who posts ads on the Net. Moreover, such ads usually disappear in a few days but no one knows what damage has been done to the child’s mental state.

Which companies’ ads have been identified as discriminative this year?

According to Daria Nagaivska,, Vienne House apartment complex, Epicentr trade center,, Lazerhouse,, staff, Fresh Café and Malibu fitness-clubs net displayed sexist advertisements.

What is being done to prevent sexist advertising in Ukraine?

Unfortunately, sexist ads are a general tendency of the Ukrainian advertising market. Developing of conscience is still in progress. The European market has already gone through it but Ukraine embarked on this path later. The market should become more civilized that gives the opportunity to sell without violation of human dignity.

Students and public activists are interested in influence on the advertising market and try to persuade advertiser that such ads don’t meet today’s standards. More and more people are ready to complain to the Committee and ask for respect for themselves, their family and children.

When there is self-regulation amongst advertisers, then it’s almost impossible to have sexist advertisements in the public space.

Furthermore, the more negative reaction is expressed by the public against sexist ads, the less promotion of a product or service through abusive images will be observed in any form of media.

Text: Natalia Ivanova

Photo: Industrial Gender Committee on Advertising

The material was prepared as a part of Gender Sensitive Space of Modern Journalism, implemented by the Volyn Press Club in partnership with the Volyn Gender Center, supported by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and implemented by Internews international organization.