There’s the occasional ad that will be witty enough to fool consumers into sharing it around all over the internet, there are well-made ads that get the point across, there are terrible ads that don’t resonate well with viewers, and there are even ads that change something perfectly acceptable to something racist depending on what country it appears in.

I think what I don’t like about ads (and what subtle product-placement successfully avoids) is that they have usually 30-90 seconds to convince me to buy a product. This same 30-90 seconds will air several times a day to attempt to establish a permanency in my mind so that when I go to the store, I will think about their product. And whether I like it or not, advertising works.

However, it’s unfortunate that because of this short medium, messages tend to be given in short stereotyped ways. They are trying to drive their point home, and an easy stereotype can be an effective way to do that. But there are several examples of this that are just plain silly – most notably in gender categories. Products are gendered in a way that are generally unnecessary and then, after the “gendering” process, some are sold in almost the most sexist way possible. Ads tell us not only what we want, but who should want it.

There are thousands of essentially indistinguishable products vying for our attention. Advertising agents simplify things by splitting some products along certain categories, which makes some sense – for example, many products in the “family” category don’t appeal to me, as I don’t yet have a family. Women get household contraptions, cosmetics, scented house products (Febreeze etc), food (chocolate, yogurt, etc). Men get fast food, steak, cars, beer, video games, etc. There are exceptions, of course, but there are obvious trends.

Men: Doofy or Douchey

Men have beer commercials assuming that they will be attracted to the product if the ad portrays men as brash, drunken, irresponsible, slut-bags. There’s home product commercials treating men like bumbling idiots who can barely tie their shoelaces without their wives’ help. And don’t get me started on power tools, which apparently men are obsessed with and women never use – have you ever seen a power saw commercial with a woman in it? That is, one where she was using the tool and not bringing her manly saw-using husband some ice cold lemonade…

What’s amusing is that many of these ads aren’t advertising directly to men, they are advertising through women – consider the recent Old Spice commercials. In the case of the hapless bumbling idiot husbands, is that what advertisers really think men identify with? I doubt it. So apparently these ads imply that women identify with having doofy, useless husbands. He knows how to use a power saw, but he’ll probably cut his own arm off, amirite?

Given the era and the broadening of people’s preferences (for example, it is now perfectly acceptable for men to buy cosmetics and they now have their own brands) why is gender such a salient factor in advertising? Why is it that for products that have breached the gender gap we have commercials even more so reinforcing stereotyped gender roles. In the case of cosmetics for men, commercials often still focus on how that makes men more “manly” and are even sometimes advertised towards women, not the men themselves (who would be using the product, but are either apparently incapable of making such decisions or rely entirely on gifts to smell a certain way).

Women: Pretty as Posies…and Thin

Women have the same issues, though with different stereotypes. Take food, for example. On one side, we’ve got “Big Food” trying to sell us chocolate and appropriate meals to feed to our husbands and children (because we have those and men can’t or won’t cook) and on the other, we’ve got “Big Diet” telling us that their product will make us thin again. According to television, men have never tasted yogurt.

Given within-group (consumer groups) saturation, there is now some interesting word use to sell products to women. The cosmetics industry in particular has tapped into this trend.  Check out Sarah Haskins’ Target Women and Skeptically Speaking’s episode “The Cosmetics Cop” for more. The latter discusses the use of Big Science Words in cosmetics advertising.

In watching daytime television in preparation for this article, I heard the following Big Science Words: Deep micro-clean, smooth round micro-scrubbers, the prefixes “bio” “nutri” and “pro”, the suffixes “derm” and “otic”, vitamins, extracts, proteins, elastins, collagen, hypoallergenic, and meaningless science ingredients with several syllables that will make you younger-looking (corollary: if they are going for the “natural” angle, these scary science words are replaced with natural fruit, vegetable, or wheat extracts and words like “gentle” and “clean”).

It’s odd. Companies try to convince us poor, non-sciency women (because women aren’t interested in such things, but are easily impressed by them) that their product is worth buying by making it sound as nonsensically impressive as possible. But at the same time, they want us to believe that their product is natural and without “toxins”. I wish I could by my facial foundation without having to support an industry that thinks I’m a scientifically-illiterate moron.

People Are Insane

But what about those commercials in which everyone is acting like a complete douchebag or the product itself causes harm. Consider fast food commercials in which everyone in an office dives for an unattended Wendy’s [?] burger. Or where some inconsiderate kid takes a bite out of his pizza pocket only to coat his entire school’s hallway with pizza sauce. I suppose the idea is to make the product as memorable as possible using any tactic necessary (the “any press is good press” philosophy ), and in this case it’s a tactic of presenting a ridiculous situation that poses no real risk. So what if what I’m thinking is “I am disgusted by this imagery”?


So there’s bitching/discussing and then there’s actually doing something. Ads seem a bit like one way communication, but in reality these ads are from a company trying to convince us of something. We have the power. We are the consumers of these products and if we see an ad we don’t like, especially from a company that we otherwise enjoy, we should write (politely) and tell them so.

I propose we be specific and point out exactly what was objectionable in the commercial and why. If appropriate, provide examples of other ads that were more effective or explain to them what better reflects reality and would still be effective in getting us to buy their crap (that is after all, their main concern). If more people do it, and if they are receiving constant feedback on the same issue, maybe something will change and husbands will no longer be the glorified adopted children of yogurt-eating, science-derpy moms.

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