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Not Sold on Sexist Ads
Nahian Chowdhury

I only watch about five hours of television a week, but lately I’ve noticed that a lot of commercials advertising household cleaning supplies show a woman using the product. One shows a woman mopping the floor and she looks happy about doing it. To me, it seems unrealistic; who’s happy mopping the floor?

As women, I feel like we are constantly told to seek careers outside the home and to be independent, yet we are still depicted as the floor moppers. Society, at least through advertising, contradicts itself. Women are usually seen as mothers and housewives, the ones who stay home, take care of the children, and do all the cleaning. Although I believe motherhood is a wonderful thing, it’s not all women can do.

“No matter how much progress women make professionally and in the political sphere, advertisements still portray women as homemakers,” says Jennifer Pozner, founding director of Women in Media and News and a media literacy educator. She says a major reason for this is that the people making the ads are mostly men. In 2008, Kasey Windels, a graduate student at University of Texas at Austin, found that only 3% of creative directors at ad agencies were women.

“In the few commercials where women do work outside the home, they are usually portrayed as frazzled, running home to be with the kids, and juggling everything unsuccessfully,” says Shira Tarrant, professor of women’s gender and sexuality studies at California State University Long Beach.

Even a Man Can Do It!

Although men are behind most ads, they don’t portray males in a positive or contemporary light either. Men were included in the cleaning commercials I saw only to prove how easy the product is to use. Even a man can do it! For example, in a diaper commercial, the scene shows a group of inept dads successfully putting diapers on their babies while the moms are out shopping.

These types of ads stigmatize men as not being able to raise children on their own—and they don’t represent single fathers. According to the 2011 U.S Census, there are 1.7 million single dads in the U.S.

About 10 years ago, Scott Lukas, a sociology professor at Lake Tahoe Community College, compiled 50 ads illustrating gender stereotypes and incorporated them into a presentation for his class on gender bias in advertising. Today, he’s collected over 3,000 images on the website The Gender Ads Project. “When you view thousands of images that drive home the same stereotypes about men and women, the build-up of seeing these similar images, ideas, and attitudes over and over can affect your behavior and beliefs,” says Lukas. It makes sense to me that what we see in advertisements can impact the way we think.

Stop Objectifying Women

Once I started paying attention, I noticed that many ads not only reinforce dated stereotypes about gender roles (men work, women take care of the home); they also objectify women and present them as shallow, weak, and self-absorbed.

One yogurt commercial depicted a scene showing women who were only willing to try the yogurt because an attractive guy was encouraging them to try it. This implies that a guy can get a girl to do things for him, maybe even more than just tasting yogurt. In other spots, women also have little willpower and are easily swayed from their diets by pretty cupcakes and donuts.

“Those commercials aren’t just damaging to women and girls, they’re damaging to men and boys by giving them the wrong messages about what women want and their position in society,” says Cristina Escobar, director of communications at The Represent Project, an organization that uses film to challenge and overcome limiting stereotypes.

Digital and print ads are no different. For instance, in 2013, an American Apparel ad for a unisex shirt showed a man on one side wearing the shirt and on the other side, a woman. The man’s shirt was buttoned but the woman’s shirt was unbuttoned and she had nothing on underneath. American Apparel should sell their clothing based on quality, not based on images objectifying women.

Boys Can Like Pink

image by YC-Art Dept

However, a few companies have made strides by defying stereotypes. I hope we start to see more of these.

For example, one J. Crew print ad features the company’s president and creative director, Jenna Lyons, painting her son’s nails. The caption reads, “Lucky for me I ended up with a son whose favorite color is pink. Toenail painting is way more fun in neon.”

This ad shows that it’s OK to be a boy who likes pink and paints his nails. I think ads like these create a more relaxed and welcoming atmosphere for people who are not totally masculine or feminine but rather somewhere in between on the gender spectrum.

And as part of their Real Beauty campaign, Dove features women who aren’t actresses or models and who have more realistic body types. One of the women said in an NBC News interview that she had experienced insecurities about being curvy and short throughout her life. She decided to participate in this campaign to help make sure other females, especially young girls, don’t go through what she experienced.

Take Action

You don’t have to run a company or work in an ad agency to make these changes, though. In 2012, 13-year-old McKenna Pope started a petition and collected 40,000 signatures to convince Hasbro to produce a more gender-neutral Easy-Bake Oven. Although Pope’s younger brother likes to cook and bake, he didn’t think the oven was for boys. “I think it has to do with the way Hasbro markets their products. If you look at the commercials it’s always girls cooking with their mothers. It’s also in pink and purple which society has made out to be girly colors,” Pope said on CNN.

Pozner recounts a dad’s response to a bunch of stickers that went with one of his daughter’s Lego sets. “The stickers were of construction workers, and they were all male. One of them said, ‘Hey Babe,’ basically a street harassment Lego sticker. He couldn’t believe Lego thought this was OK. So he started a campaign to get Lego to stop selling those stickers and he was successful.”

Maybe in response to this dad’s campaign, I also saw an ad for Lego Universal Building Sets featuring a girl holding on to something that she had just built. The caption reads, “What it is is beautiful.” As a child, I liked building forts and bridges with my brother, and I doubt I’m the only girl who does.

These ads were changed because people spoke up. You can make a difference too. When you see something sexist take to your Twitter and call that company out using the hashtag #notbuyingit. Take a picture, include a short message about what you find wrong with it, and ask some of your friends to do the same. Include the company’s email. “The message can snowball into such a large effect that the company takes notice,” says Escobar. Don’t include the link to the ad because that helps promote the product.

Or if you feel strongly about having an ad removed, you can start a petition on (A petition is a public message to one or more decision makers, asking them to do something. People sign it, so the recipient can see how many people want something changed. In this case, it would be sending a message to a company to remove their ad.)

Two months ago, Abi Bechtel, a mother from Ohio tweeted a picture of signs Target uses to label their toy aisle. The sign read “Building Sets” and below it, “Girls’ Building Sets.” Bechtel wrote, “Don’t do this @Target.” When CNN reported on the story, her post had received 2,044 retweets and 1,937 favorites.

As a result, Target announced that references to gender in the toy aisles will be removed. This is another example of how just one tweet objecting to a corporation’s blatant sexism and stereotyping created change.


When you see something sexist in an ad, take to your Twitter and call that company out using the hashtag #notbuyingit.

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