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Wanna hear a joke? Feminist advertising

As a feminist, I could spend hours bitching about the way the advertising industry exploits women by creating unattainable standards of beauty. But today, I’d like to take a different approach. In my History of Advertising course, we’ve been learning that in the early twentieth century, during the “first wave” of feminism, advertisers used suffrage to sell their products. So I spent some time mulling that over while watching MTV, and realized that advertisers are still co-opting feminism to create ads that ultimately sell an oppressive product and ideal to women.

So, let’s start from the beginning.

In 1913, Shredded Wheat published this advertisement.

At first glance, it looks like Shredded Wheat is fully endorsing suffrage. The copy reads,

“Two million women will have a right to vote in the next Presidential election. Twenty million women have voted for the emancipation of American womanhood by serving Shredded Wheat in their homes. Every biscuit is a vote for health, happiness, and domestic freedom-a vote for pure food, for clean living, and clean thinking. The housewife who knows the nutritive value of Shredded Wheat and the many delicious fruit combinations that can be made with it may banish kitchen worry and household care.” (emphasis mine)

When you read the emphasized sections, it becomes clear that Shredded Wheat is equating the emancipation gained via suffrage with serving an easily made breakfast. I don’t know about you, but I don’t find the two comparable. The copy ought to read something like, “By buying Shredded Wheat, you’ll be freeing yourself from the shackles of porridge and omelets.” Hardly worth a hunger strike.

Then came this gem of a car ad from General Motors, published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1928

The copy shows a testimonial letter from a “young businesswoman,” then reads

“This young business woman is one of thousands of women who have written about their automobiles. Most of them are mothers. They say that the car has pushed back the horizon of a mother’s world; baby legs no longer measure the extent of her travelsWherever there are roads she can go with her children, her neighborhood is as broad as the miles that can be covered between the dawn and the dark.” (emphasis mine)

Similar to the Shredded Wheat approach, GM is trying to equate their cars with freedom. But this freedom is still limited to the confines of the family, generally considered the women’s “sphere of influence.” Instead of talking about the adventures young women can take in their cars, they talk about how mothers can now travel around the block instead of around the playpen! They essentially ignore single women, not to mention working mothers who have to leave their children all day to take care of other people’s children, or wait tables, or clean.

Then came the television era, and with it, this ad for Virginia Slims (aired in the late 1960s)

As you can see, the social acceptance of cigarette smoking is equated with Women’s Lib. The ad says, you got the vote, you’ve got shorter skirts, now you’ve got your own cigarette. Your husband used to send you to bed with no dinner for smoking, but no longer! Now you can destroy your body in public! And how sexy is this cigarette? As sexy as empowerment! Not.

While I could go on for pages about the sexist co-opting in 60s and 70s advertising, I’ll move along to today.

Behold, the Dove Real Beauty Campaign. Finally, a beauty product company recognizing that women come in all shapes and sizes!

In 2006, they presented this ad, titled “Evolution” which makes it clear how unrealistic models in advertisements are. 

Look! The ad even says “No wonder our perception of beauty is so distorted.”

Here’s another one (warning, this is a tear-jerker)

How awesome is this? We need to tell young girls that they are beautiful the way they are, that society has created UNREALISTIC, IMPOSSIBLE-TO-ACHIEVE, ABSURD standards of beauty that not even  the most beautiful models can attain without photoshopping.

But wait…doesn’t Dove sell products that tell us that our bodies our good enough the way they are?

For starters, there’s this ad

So let me get this straight. If I’m not using Dove, my underarms are something to be ashamed of? Because they’re too dry? Huh…I thought I was beautiful the way I was Dove.

But wait, there’s more.

So not only are my underarms too dry, they get too hairy too fast! Geez Dove, you’re really starting to confuse me.

And the final blow. Dove, despite it’s commitment to the “Real Beauty Campaign,” despite telling women that we are beautiful the way we are and we must embrace our natural state, sells anti-cellulite gel. You can buy it here. So let’s recap. My underarms are too dry, too prickly, and now I must minimize any appearance of aging or weight? Even though cellulite is natural and even the most fit people have it? Even though 5 year-olds who are in no way overweight have cellulite? Way to burst my bubble Dove.

So there you have it. Corporations will always be corporations, no matter how feminist they try to be. The next time you see an ad or commercial marketing a product as “empowering” or “freeing” take a step back and think about what they’re really trying to say.

P.S. I’d like to extend MAJOR gratitude to my professor who was exponentially helpful with this post (they know who they are)

3 Responses to “Wanna hear a joke? Feminist advertising”

  1. Clare

    Hi there,

    I am doing a literature review on how the advertising industry has responded to feminism and came across your blog. In my review I am looking at each wave of feminism and how the advertising industry has or has not responded. I just wondered where you got this information especially the images etc as i have struggled to get academic information especially talking about first wave.

    any help would be great.

  2. femistorian

    Hi Clare! I found the Shredded Wheat image through a collection at Bryn Mawr

    You should also check out the book Selling Suffrage by Margaret Finnegan and Advertising in America by Charles Goodrum and Helen Dalrymple.
    Also look into the ad campaigns used by Lucky Strike in the 1929 Easter Parade in NYC. This was slightly after the first wave, but they used much of the jargon to sell cigarettes to women. As I noted in this post, a lot of car advertisers used the new model of a “liberated” woman to sell vehicles while still promoting traditional gender norms.

    You should also check out this post from They did a whole podcast about how women were tricked into smoking and they usually have good sources to back themselves up. I’d also recommend checking out recent cigarette packaging and how it is marketed to women (especially Camel No. 9s).
    I hope this helps, let me know if you need more information!

    • Clare

      Thanks so much this really helped with my literature review. Really appreciate it.



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