10 Examples of Women’s Portrayal in Ads, From the Good to the Bad to the Completely Sexist

Representation has changed since the 1950s, but not always quite enough

Some recent women-led campaigns have successfully challenged outdated stereotypes. Photo Illustration: Dianna McDougall
Headshot of Lindsay Rittenhouse

It’s 2018, and many ads featuring women are still steeped in 1950s-era patriarchal stereotypes. And 85 percent of women say they are offended by stereotypical depictions of their gender, according to a joint study by JWT and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media.

But there’s a rising wave of women working behind the scenes to challenge such representations. With movements like #MeToo and #TimesUp acting as catalysts for change, agencies are taking a hard look at their policies, and in some cases, installing more female leaders in high-powered creative roles.

Below are some examples of women-led campaigns that successfully challenged outdated stereotypes, along with other recent and some much older ads that—well—didn’t.

The Good …

“The Wonder of Us”
Client: Coca-Cola
Agency: Wieden + Kennedy
Year: 2018

One of only a handful of female directors to handle a Super Bowl LII commercial, Alma Har’el’s 60-second spot was hands-down the most inclusive. It featured women of color, female athletes, disabled and LGBTQ people, each narrating lines of a poem about Coke which is really an ode to American diversity.

Client: P&G
Agency: Wieden + Kennedy
Year: 2017

Pam Fujimoto, creative director of June Cleaver Is Dead, a new consultancy aimed at improving marketers’ portrayal of mothers, says most ads targeting simply “moms” are handled by a group of white men, who reinforce negative stereotypes. Not this time. This spot, directed by Alma Har’el, depicts moms of all backgrounds—one of color, another with a disabled child and a low-income mom, supporting their children and their dreams—all with a unified message: “Imagine if the world could see what a mom sees.”

Client: P&G
Agency: Leo Burnett Chicago
Year: 2014

This groundbreaking ad directed by award-winning documentarian Lauren Greenfield and a predominantly female team, on both the agency and client sides, began as a social experiment to redefine the expression “like a girl.” Says A.J. Hassan, R/GA executive creative director and vp of Leo Burnett when this ad was created: “It was a simple brief that set out to change the staggering confidence crisis in puberty, ‘one girl at a time.’ We cast real women and men to reveal the bias that has been ingrained in all of us. That authenticity made all the difference.”

The Bad …

“I Like Beer”
Client: Michelob Ultra
Agency: FCB Chicago
Year: 2018

In this Super Bowl LII ad, Chris Pratt and a bunch of strapping men are depicted in various scenes, including one in which they surround one woman sitting at a bar, singing “I like beer.” Not a single woman was seen alongside the dudes in the scenes involving surfing or lifting weights at the gym. Instead, when women weren’t portrayed as simply a prop on a barstool, they appeared in activities often characterized as feminine, like yoga. And that was both the point—and the problem. “It would be wildly refreshing to see beer advertising that portrayed us as something other than the hot babe on a barstool—a reward for a guy who picked the right pint,” says Lori Korchek, creative director at Publicis.“In reality, we like to kick back with a brewski and watch the game just as much as the next guy.”

“Icelandic Vikings”
Client: Ram Trucks
Agency: Goodby Silverstein & Partners
Year: 2018

This Super Bowl LII spot, set to a fast-paced version of Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” aimed to serve as a tribute to Minneapolis and the Minnesota Vikings. What it did was reinforce the age-old stereotype that trucks are for burly men, not women (well, maybe for the one token female in the ad). In the spot, we see the new Ram 1500 towing a group of barbaric Vikings and their massive ship. 

“Ready for Anything”
Client: Buick
Agency: Engage M1
Year: 2017

To promote the 2018 Buick Encore, we meet two young women, possibly in their early 30s, heading to a baby shower in their SUV (cue eye roll). Two nice, white suburban ladies wouldn’t be venturing out of their home mid-afternoon for any other reason than to attend a baby shower, right?

The Ugly …

“Give Her a Hoover and Give Her the Best”
Client: Hoover
Year: 1946

Did you know the perfect holiday gift for a woman in 1946 was a Hoover vacuum? Neither did we. Even the woman in the ad seems perplexed to find that her big Christmas present is a vacuum.

“If Your Husband Ever Finds Out”
Client: Chase & Sanborn Coffee
Year: 1952

In this lovely advertisement, Chase & Sanborn promotes fresh grounds and domestic abuse. And, yes, to answer the real question on everyone’s mind: In those days people could sniff the coffee beans in the store before they were packaged and paid for.

“Show Her It’s a Man’s World”
Client: Van Heusen
Year: 1951

It’s debatable what’s the worst part about this ad: the subservient woman delivering her husband breakfast in bed on her knees or the fact that her man is wearing a tie in bed. Either way, it’s not a good look.

“You Mean a Woman Can Open It?”
Client: Alcoa Aluminum
Year: 1953

In this wildly sexist ad, the twist is that a woman can actually open a bottle. Back when it aired it often was mistaken as a promotion for Del Monte because its ketchup bottle was used to demonstrate Alcoa Aluminum’s HyTop twist-off bottle cap. In actuality, Del Monte had nothing to do with it.

This story first appeared in the March 26, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.

@kitten_mouse lindsay.rittenhouse@adweek.com Lindsay Rittenhouse is a staff writer at Adweek, where she specializes in covering the world of agencies and their clients.