In a lot of ways, 2013 was an amazing year for the portrayal of women in advertising. Ogilvy's "Real Beauty Sketches" for Dove sparked a massive discussion of self-image and the definition of beauty. UN Women's "Autocomplete Truth" campaign brilliantly highlighted inequality worldwide. GoldieBlox created a viral anthem for girl empowerment (while admittedly fostering some avoidable ill will along the way). And a Pantene ad from the Philippines took issue with gender hypocrisy in the workplace.
But not every ad in 2013 was a coup for feminism. Today, we look back at some of the more egregious examples of negative stereotypes about women from ads around the world this year. Some might bother you more than others, but either way, it's a debate worth having.
Google Simplifies Gmail So Women Can Shop for Shoes
While most of the ads you'll see in this gallery are a bit more blatant in their stereotyping of women, Google still deserves a swat on the nose for the almost hilarious litany of clichés packed into "Meet Gmail's New Inbox." In just over a minute, we see a woman use Gmail's new features to chat with her knitting friends, plan a date, get a coupon for a mani-pedi—and, of course, buy shoes.
"The problem," notes Washington Post tech writer Andrea Peterson, "is that opening a video with 'Inboxes can be overwhelming' then having a woman navigate the space using stereotypical female interests feeds into a larger narrative thread pervasive in tech advertising: that women need some sort of special hand holding or gender-specific enticement to use technology."
Swiffer Revives Rosie, but Not as a Riveter
If you're going to repurpose the iconic image of Rosie the Riveter, it's best not to show her taking stoic pride in domestic housework. That's a lesson Swiffer learned swiftly this year when it showed a woman in Rosie's signature WW II-era headkerchief and rolled-up denim sleeves on a digital ad for its steam cleaner. After vocal pushback online, the brand apologized and pledged to remove the image from all its marketing materials.
Axe Says Women Will Drop Anyone for an Astronaut
The biggest sin of Axe's Super Bowl ad, "Lifeguard," was that it's simply not funny or even all that comprehensible. But the core premise, that women are flighty opportunists who judge men solely on occupation, was marginally more loathsome than Axe's usual core premise, that women are pheromone-controlled sex addicts.
Carl’s Jr. Still Showing Women as Erotic Carnivores
You either love or hate 72andSunny's long-running campaign featuring some of the world's most attractive women having erotic encounters with the menu options of Carl's Jr. and Hardees. Either way, it's hard to deny that the ads basically just objectify women as ravenous sex carnivores who feel compelled to rip off their clothing in public when feasting on fast food. This year, the campaign featured swimsuit model Nina Agdal, Miss Alabama USA Katherine Webb and Heidi Klum, with some additional buzz generated by a related spot that was deemed too salacious for TV in New Zealand.
Sure, there's something tongue-in-cheek about the whole campaign, but it's also about as far from empowering as you can get.
TrueCar Finally Helps Women Buy Cars Without Men
Used-car pricing service TrueCar threw the cultural gear into reverse this year with a spot explaining how the brand helps women finally go car shopping without having to bring a man along. Defending its ad as "pro-women," TrueCar argued that it was helping to achieve gender equality by providing reliable information to help women negotiate.
But the reason the spot so badly missed the mark is that it implies women are uncomfortable at auto dealerships because they are ignorant of pricing, when the problem actually runs much deeper. Women are uncomfortable at dealerships because they are treated like a lesser gender and wolfhounded into an uncomfortable negotiating position that goes far beyond price. Saying that an online pricing service can solve the problem by educating women is just a way of saying it's been the women's fault all along.
Pot Noodle Peels the Top Off a Hottie
We probably don't need to explain much more than the fact that Pot Noodle called its online campaign "Peel the Top Off a Hottie." But puerile premise aside, the execution was pretty abysmal, too.
In a video version, we get treated to some sexualization of women, with an added bonus of homophobia in the form of that advertising chestnut, the homo-queasy punch line. On Facebook, the brand also posted a picture of a woman in a red bikini and a package of Chilli Beef Pot Noodle, with the question, "HOT OFF. Which one gets you hotter?" Britain's Ad Standards Authority shot down the Facebook post for being "crass and degrading," but allowed the rest of the campaign to stand because it did not feel the stripping was portrayed as nonconsensual.
American Apparel Puts Its Double Standard on Display
No one puts the sex in "unisex" quite like American Apparel. In a post that drew global attention this year, Swedish blogger Emelie Eriksson pointed out the laughable differences between the male and female versions of the same outfits as portrayed on American Apparel's website. Women were shown pantsless and crawling, while men were simply hanging out and looking relatively normal. The brand defended its photographic style to the Daily Mail: "We don't think there is anything in these photos out of sync with our standards, and we think they portray the garments and the models in an attractive way and are not even the slightest discriminatory."
Acora Helps You Outsource Sex With Ugly Women
Some of the most cringeworthy ads still come out of the b-to-b tech sector, where an ongoing lack of women in leadership tends to lead to ads that feel decades behind. This year's best case in point was a print ad for Acora IT Outsourcing, which showed an overweight woman lounging naked in front of a bemused man, with the headline, "Some tasks are better outsourced." (I'm not sure why you'd need to outsource sex with someone rather than just decline, but I'm admittedly overthinking it here.)
In a tweet of apology, the U.K. company noted, "We released a piece of marketing that has caused some offense. We apologize to anyone who may have been offended, it has since been removed."
JWT Creates Abduction-Themed Ford Ads Amid Rape Epidemic
While Ford was blameless when this unapproved print ad concept went viral in 2013, the same could not be said of its agency, JWT India. Someone at the shop sent the ads, featuring women being abducted, to Ads of the World, a popular online repository for ads (official or not) whose creators feel they deserve more appreciation.
One ad shows former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi ball-gagging three women in his trunk while flashing the peace sign. Another shows Paris Hilton kidnapping her pop-culture rivals the Kardashians. The tagline for each is, "Leave your worries behind with Figo's extra-large boot." The ads came along as India was in the global spotlight for an ongoing spate of gang rapes, making an already unamusing concept downright disgusting.
RadioShack Knows You Want Its Hot Phallus
The date-rapiest hit song of the year? Check. Scantily clad women cavorting around a fully dressed man and being used as furniture? Check. Phallic products displayed at their most phalliest? You bet.
This year's dubious distinction for most sexist ad almost certainly has to go to RadioShack, which essentially just copied and pasted the official video by "Blurred Lines" lothario Robin Thicke and dropped in some schlong-shaped Beats Pill speakers for added effect.
What's odd is that, compared to most of the other ads on this list, the RadioShack ad drew relatively little negative attention. Britain's ad watchdog prohibited it from being shown before 7:30 p.m., but otherwise it received little public censure.
That indifference is likely because the ad is simply a rebranded version of the song video, featuring the same women in the same outfits and the same poses. And while the song's lyrics and imagery have certainly been debated since its debut, one might argue the ad is the lesser of the two evils, since the music video even comes in an extra-NSFW, nudity-packed explicit version. But I disagree.
Music videos these days are, like pornography, largely sought out by their audiences. They're not beamed unwittingly and uninvited into living rooms. But RadioShack took the imagery and objectification of the video and turned it into a mainstream TV ad, giving the whole thing corporate endorsement and basically saying, "This is totally OK."
As blogger Imran Siddiquee of the Representation Project notes, it's a case of a brand trying to create something risque but instead simply creating a rehash of sexist images that audiences have been growing numb to for decades. "The truth is," Siddiquee writes, "there is nothing 'edgy' about this kind of dehumanization. Not in the visuals or the concept. It's as tired and uncreative as it is harmful."