Perspective: Blonde Ambition

She's tall, young, blonde and saucy—and she's been selling brands for over half a century

Headshot of Robert Klara

Question: What does a bottle of Pepsi from 1957 have in common with a pricey pair of Guess jeans in 2012? Answer: Pretty much nothing—except for tall, blonde and provocatively posed young ladies. Perhaps we’d better revise that response. These two products actually have one very important thing in common, and it’s a tactic that’s easily the most prevalent and versatile of the advertising playbook: the woman as provocateur.

“For 30 years, advertising has been telling us that what’s most important about women is how we appeal to men,” observed Barbara J. Berg, historian and author of Sexism in America. “The hypersexualized look—usually blonde, usually young, usually ‘hot’—tells the man ‘these women are fawning over me. I’m going to get lucky.’”

And that mere suggestion, men of America, has prompted you to purchase many a brand.

Academics have referred to this stereotypical portrayal as the objectification of women, the process by which a female figure in a magazine ad forfeits her personhood and defaults to being little more than a curvaceous prop—the “perfect provocateur,” as sociologist Anthony J. Cortese has written. “Accepted attractiveness is her only attribute. She is slender, typically tall and long-legged.”

The wife or girlfriend in the 1957 Pepsi ad is all of those things. And while the implied licentiousness is tame by today’s standards, the female figure here is a prime example of early objectification, according to Berg. “The woman’s stance, her hand on her hip and standing there with her leg up—it was saucy and flirtatious,” she said. “This isn’t June Cleaver.” Note the man’s easy confidence. That pretty woman sure digs him. Boy, those were the days.

But here’s something to ponder: Seeing as the five decades that separate these two ads witnessed the liberation and empowerment of women—the abandoning of the stove and ironing board in favor of the college degree and business career—how is it that Guess can still cast a Rat Pack-era tootsie in its ad without seeming dated or out of touch? If women have come so far in society, why is this one still playing a postwar pinup girl?

In part, of course, it’s the retro styling of the Guess men’s jeans ad. But Berg believes another, more subtle force is at work here. “While we’re living in a postfeminist society, we’ve seen a retreat somewhat,” she said. The millennial-decade bookends of 9/11 and the Great Recession have, Berg believes, caused a kind of symbolic emasculation of the American male. “We’re living in a period in which men have suffered tremendous blows to their egos,” she said. “And in many ways it’s led to a kind of remachoization of America.” The symbology of the Guess ad suggests Berg is onto something. Note the man’s easy confidence, the woman’s tarty pose. Yeah, bud, you’re gonna get lucky.

“I’ve seen far worse. These are great ads,” Berg said. “They’re both telling us we really haven’t changed all that much.”

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@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.