The Edit


women in advertising


How is gender represented in advertisements? Well, men, on the whole, have been illustrated as strong, intelligent and hard-working, but we can’t say the same for women.

In today's world, women are - more often than not - empowered by the media. However, this wasn't always the case.

So, what was the role of women in advertisements?

Not so long ago, sexist ads encouraged women to be two things: a mans maid and accessory. Even after they helped keep the world running during World War I and II, women were still regarded as passive and inferior.

And what percent of advertising is targeted at women? According to a 2019 study by The Economic Times, 58% of contemporary adverts target women versus the 38% that target both genders.

So read on to find out more about the history of women in advertising, and all about how commercials went from portraying women as passive housewives to celebrating kick-ass women

The Portrayal of Women in Advertising

Early 20th Century

Before the first TV ad aired in 1941, print and cinema advertisements were two of the most effective ways for advertisers to promote their products to a wide-ranging audience. 

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In 1908, Henry William Hoover founded his namesake brand in Ohio, USA.

As you may already know, he worked with James Murray Spangler – inventor of the upright vacuum cleaner – to mass-produce Hoover vacuum cleaners. 

By the 1920s, a Hoover vacuum cleaner was recognised across the USA as a household essential. And the narrative that the brands print advertisements pushed to promote their cleaning device was that a Hoover was a womans greatest desire.

It was commonplace to find Hoover print ads accompanied by captions such as, ‘Dont disappoint her again this Christmas. Give her a Hoover’, 'Give her a Hoover, and you give her the best’, and, 'The Hoover will safeguard her pride in a clean home.’

Early 20th Century ads like this depicted the average woman as a domestic servant whose only desire in life was to keep a tidy home to please her husband. 

sexist ad

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Cinema Advertisements

During the 1930s, cinemas started to pop up everywhere, and some of the most seminal films in cinematic history made their debut, such as The Wizard of Oz and Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

For advertisers, the advent of cinema meant a captive audience to promote their wares to.

One example of a 1930s screen ad is A Film Mystery’ by Dreft, which follows a character called Mrs Smith who is found in the kitchen. When viewers meet Mrs Smith, she is washing up at the sink.

The narrator recommends that, like Mrs Smith, viewers should start using Dreft detergent when washing dishes and glasses.

This is just another example of how, during these times, women were viewed as nothing more than housekeepers. 

Watch this and more 1930s ads below. 


Televisions were becoming increasingly common during the 1940s-1950s, to such an extent that the majority of people in western countries owned a television by the end of the 50s.

Naturally more and more advertisers capitalised on this new audience, investing in the production of screen advertisements.

Less fortunate was the fact that - despite women assuming mens roles during WW2 – these adverts were littered with sexist stereotypes.

In the selection of 1940s ads below collated by NowThis News, theres one obvious throughline: women need to live up to mens standards. 


Coca-Cola Commercial (1961)

In 1961, Coca-Cola recruited actress Connie Clausen to star in its TV ad that pivoted around an outlandish theory: Coke keeps you thin. Theres no waistline worry with Coke you know,” says Clausen, before she dives into the reasons why she drinks the soft beverage to keep her body in check.

Even putting the dubious science to one side, it’s a damaging message to send women that their worth is intrinsically linked to their physical appearance.

If we have to look for a silver lining though, at least its protagonist is a career-driven woman, rather than a housewife chained to the kitchen sink.

Kodak Commercial (1964)

Alas, were back to the kitchen with this Kodak ad, where the late Betty White is preparing a picnic for the beach whilst talking viewers through Kodaks colour film.

But there is some good news: the actress is too preoccupied talking about the camera companys colour film to feed into conventional housewife stereotypes. Go Betty!


Tab Cola Commercial (1972)

During the 1970s, it felt as though there was real progress in terms of tackling gender inequality in media and advertising.

Take this female-led 1972 Tab Cola commercial, for example: theres not a man, kitchen or cleaning product in sight. However, the advertising world had found another to exploit women: the male gaze.

Women (like the one seen in this ad) were sexualised to entice men to buy the product or service being promoted.

Tab Commercial (1978)

Six years after the above Tab commercial, the soft beverage brand released its Beautiful People’ ad.

As the name suggests, the ad stars an array of individuals, including a besuited working woman, a pageant winner and a female cyclist.

Its clear that advertisers are beginning to eschew the notion that all women are the same, and celebrating diversity instead.


Martini Commercial (1981)

Women being subject to the male gaze was an even greater issue during the 1980s; after the decade of liberation, women would often appear in ads wearing skimpy outfits for the pleasure of men.

Case in point: Martinis 1981 roller waitress commercial. Are there any redeeming features? Well, it does show a modestly-dressed woman as part of an important board meeting… We’ll take what we can get.

BT Commercial (circa 1988)

Maureen Lipmans late-1980s BT commercials are nothing short of hilarious, but there are some less than ideal themes running throughout the series of ads.

For example, in the commercial that advertises BTs order by phone service, it is quickly made apparent that Lipman's character wants nothing more than to purchase household electrics like vacuum cleaners and washing machines. Its like the 1920s all over again.


Bounty Commercial (1990)

Sex sells was very much the motto of the 90s and advertisers found new and inventive ways to feature half-naked women in their commercials.

For instance, this Bounty ad takes viewers to an exotic beach, inviting them to taste paradise” whilst staring at a bikini-clad woman. 

But there is one way in which this commercial differs from the Martini ad that aired a decade prior: Bounty also included a half-naked man for the benefit of the female gaze. Yes, it was time for ladies to take a look too.

Spice Girls Commercial (1996)

Nothing says 90s girl power quite like the Spice Girls.

The pop quintet were inspiring women across the globe to embrace their own persona – from their unique sense of style to their favourite hobbies – to stand out from the crowd.

Our favourite line in the ad comes from Mel C, who uses her moment to exclaim, Watch out lads, the girls are ere!” By this point, it seemed that the new millennium would mark a new age for women. 


Gillette Venus Commercial (2000)

Just after the turn of 2000, Gillette released their Venus commercial that promised women they would feel like a goddess if they used the brands new line of razors.

It is discernible from the offset that the ad aims to encourage women to shave their legs for themselves, not to impress men.

This concept is confirmed when the female narrator says, Thats something all goddesses are entitled to,” when discussing smooth skin. Men, who?

Mercedes Commercial (2007)

Even after the 2000s, some brands failed to comprehend that it was no longer acceptable to stereotype women as unintelligent.

One of the most famous examples of an air-headed woman in 2000s ads comes from Mercedes’ ‘Beauty is Nothing Without Brains’ ad. In this commercial, a woman states her fast food order to a librarian.

Well, at least the savvy librarian was representing the alert women of the world!


John Lewis Commercial (2010)

In 2010, department store chain John Lewis celebrated women with its advert that took viewers from baby to old lady to the sound of Fyfe Dangerfields cover of Billy Joels Shes Always a Woman.

Emotional and powerful, the ad reminded the people at home that women are the glue to all aspects of life. 

Nike Commercial (2017)

By the late 2010s, advertisers realised that it was beneficial for both them and their audience to push the belief that women are capable of anything.

Suddenly, strong and resilient women were en vogue, and no one – not even men! – complained.

Some of the finest examples of ads that empower women come from Nike, like 2017s This Is Us.


Dior Commercial (2021)

100 years after the print Hoover ads, Dior released a commercial starring Natalie Portman in which a man is a mere accessory in her life.

Oh, how the tables have turned. 

Squarespace Commercial (2022)

For the Super Bowl 2022, New York-based website company Squarespace recruited Zendaya to lead their ad that pivots around a successful businesswoman.

Squarespace uses this example of a young female entrepreneur to inspire young women to start their own businesses. We love to see it.

Women and Advertising: The Takeaway

If you successfully digested all of the information above, youll be well aware of the progress made in advertising over the last century.

In summary, women were once mistaken as the weaker gender but, finally, advertisers have acknowledged that – as Beyoncé puts it – girls run the world. 

Keen to read more about women in the media? We can guarantee youll find something worth reading over on The Edit. Interested in film? Have a read of the best female directors and female filmmakers who changed the game. More into music? Sounds like our piece on women in hip hop is more up your street. Or if you prefer to spend your time scrolling through YouTube, you check out our piece on the best female YouTubers.

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