Is all marketing sexist?

Thursday, 06 September 2007

I recently read this article about gender biased advertising, and it definitely got me thinking about some of the overtly sexist advertising out there, as well as the more subtle, and perhaps more damaging, messages we are constantly bombarded with. It’s an issue that’s been around forever, which begs the question not what is left to talk about, but why are we still talking about it?keg.jpg

In my opinion, the in-your-face ads aren’t that offensive to most, because they are essentially making fun of themselves and of the issue. Comedian Lenny Bruce talks about how “it’s the suppression of the word that gives it the power, the violence, the viciousness” in regards to racist slurs, and I think his point holds true here. Heineken’s “Draught Keg” commercial, for instance, blatantly uses the image of a “perfect” woman, and it’s clever. They exaggerate the joke to make their intentions clear, and it works.

Advertising becomes offensive when it tries to avoid the issue and ends up delivering a more subtle dig at women. This ad for lists all the different fields their services can direct you towards. Each profession has a corresponding icon of a person in that job—a cop for criminal investigation, a nurse for health care, etc. And that’s where the ad takes a wrong turn: there was a very obvious gender bias in determining which picture went with which title. Criminal investigator, bounty hunter, graphic designer, accountant and project manager are all male; social worker, teacher,ad.jpg HR officer, psychologist, health care manager and counselor are all female. The ad very clearly differentiates the professions based on antiquated stereotypes.

I’ve noticed this a few times at the internet marketing company where I work. Until recently, I was the only female employee, and therefore the only voice to be (not) heard on this issue. One site we designed used a young, blonde cheerleader on a business site. I politely (and later not so politely) argued that unless you are selling pom-poms, a cheerleader has no place on a website, and we would automatically be alienating a large segment of our target market. I firmly believed using this image was not in the best interest of the client, and so I refused to back down and eventually helped reach a compromise. But I still remember my gut reaction upon seeing that comp and thinking “that must be a placeholder image.”

Another glaring discrepancy was in an email promotion we created for a dating site. The email used photos of supposed members to punctuate the points being made in the text, as many internet dating sites are wont to do. The problem with this one was that the female photos were all full-body shots, while the males were just headshots. When I questioned the reasoning behind this decision, my colleague Dan Zarrella informed me that it was because“that’s what men want.” Apparently, women sell better than men in most markets.

So, when crafting a marketing campaign or choosing images, it pays to get a varied perspective (read: both sexes) before the finals go out. It may be just my opinion, but I think I speak for roughly half the population.


  • Nicely stated. Glad to see you blogging.


    Comment by Bryan Eisenberg — September 6, 2007 @ 11:32 am
  • Alison,

    Great post. I had to laugh at your comment about thinking the image of the cheerleader was a place holder. I’ve been in several similar situations where I simply couldn’t believe the marketer or creative team was so blind to such an obvious problem.

    One of my favorites was a sales letter sent out to at least 40% female homeowners that started out “dear sir.” (since al homeowners are men – right?)

    if you are targeting an audience (women, men, african americans, whatever) members of that target audience should always be included in the creative process. Even subtle little things can make a big difference. (like the gender stereotyped cartoon characters on the banner ad)

    Comment by Holly Buchanan — September 6, 2007 @ 11:43 am
  • [...] first post (about sexist marketing) is awesome (and she mentions me) so head over, check it out and leave a [...]

    Pingback by Alison Has a Blog » Dan Zarrella — September 6, 2007 @ 1:31 pm
  • [...] Heinekens Draught Keg commercial, for instance, blatantly uses the image of a p… source: Is all marketing sexist?, Alison [...]

  • [...] Alison Driscoll » Is all marketing sexist? If it shocks you to learn that ads objectifying women generally offend them, you shouldn’t be in advertising. Read this article anyway. (tags: sexism marketing) [...]

    Pingback by Marketing » Blog Archive » links for 2007-09-07 — September 7, 2007 @ 1:18 pm
  • ESPN makes the funniest commercials… but they don’t have anything to do about anything.


    Comment by Tim — September 12, 2007 @ 9:08 am
  • Ali:

    It was interesting to review the site. You certainly put your BU learning to good use and I was glad to see the photo of you and Lindsey. I miss you



    Comment by steve driscoll — October 12, 2007 @ 2:47 pm
  • [...] often asked if all marketing is sexist, and I think the answer is yes. Or at least, all advertising is offensive, if you look hard [...]

  • [...] to that in this post and I’ve become increasingly aware and convinced of this shift since. Traditionally sexist ads and images of women are being turned around to make fun of themselves and old stereotypes, so men [...]

    Pingback by Even bad sex sells » Alison Driscoll — January 8, 2008 @ 9:12 am
  • [...] to that in this post and I’ve become increasingly aware and convinced of this shift since. Traditionally sexist ads and images of women are being turned around to make fun of themselves and old stereotypes, so men [...]

    Pingback by Alison Driscoll — January 8, 2008 @ 9:13 am
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  • [...] things to the extreme can help you cut to the chase. The Heineken Draught Keg commercial that kicked off this blog is one such over the top ad that makes me giggle AND want to buy some Heinies. How do you not love [...]

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