The New Woman—largely identified in the press as white, educated, urban and middle class—embraced the ideals of modernity over those of tradition; she was also, significantly, a consumer. It was in their role as consumers, in fact, that women were permitted and even encouraged to enter the public arena. Because women were the primary purchasing agents for their households, they became the logical targets of such advertising.
"The personal sell"
In the 1920s, a boom in the production of leisure goods and labor-saving items necessitated changes in ad strategies. Ads began to put less emphasis on the objective value of the product and instead based appeals more on what historian Roland Marchand termed "the personal sell." Appealing to women's desires for personal pleasure or freedom from convention was a particularly useful strategy, and ads frequently appropriated feminist rhetoric and practices to make non-essential products more appealing to women.
An example of this strategy, which historian Stuart Ewen termed "commercialized feminism," is a 1929 campaign by the American Tobacco Industry to encourage women to smoke in public, a societal taboo for "nice" women, that referred to cigarettes as "torches of freedom."
The importance of women as consumers had another effect on the advertising industry in the early part of the century: More women were hired in the advertising industry because a woman's viewpoint was considered essential.
The rebirth of feminism in the 1960s found feminists and advertisers much more in conflict than they had been in the 1920s. By the 1960s, second-wave feminists perceived advertising as one of the primary means by which society pressured women to fit into idealized roles as wives and mothers. Betty Friedan's 1963 book "The Feminine Mystique" included a detailed, blistering critique of women's images in advertising. Ms. Friedan's influence, along with the passage of the 1963 Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, whose Title VII prohibited discrimination in employment based on sex, forced society to re-evaluate the status of women in the workplace and drew attention to their representation in the media.
In the late 1960s and early '70s, feminists began to actively organize protests against advertisers. Feminists in the U.S. first attacked discrimination against women in help-wanted ads and their representation in several specific ad campaigns. As a result of protests and lawsuits, help-wanted advertising was changed throughout the U.S. and Canada to eliminate separate listings labeled "Men" and "Women."
This victory encouraged other protests, such as the one against National Airlines' 1971 "Fly me" campaign, which required stewardesses to wear buttons bearing the slogans "Fly me" and "We make you feel good all over." The National Organization for Women worked with Stewardesses for Women's Rights to protest the ads. The groups ran TV spots showing how the ads failed to reflect the reality of a stewardess' primary function as the enforcer of safety regulations. While the protests generated a great deal of publicity, the ads did not stop and were even imitated by other airlines.
Other protests, such as NOW's campaign against widely advertised feminine hygiene sprays, which were suspected of being physically harmful and implied that women were "smelly" and "dirty," were more successful. NOW's protests spurred an investigation of those products by the Federal Trade Commission that concluded that vaginal sprays had no hygienic value and were indeed dangerous. Advertising of these products largely ceased as a result.
Protesting sexual stereotypes
Throughout the 1970s, feminist groups worked to draw the public's attention to sexual stereotypes in advertising and to change them through protests, product boycotts, letter-writing campaigns and lawsuits. While feminists were sometimes successful in their protests against specific ad campaigns, they were not able to achieve their ultimate goal of government regulation.
Feminists worked instead to encourage the industry to self-regulate sexism in advertising. In 1975, the National Advertising Review Board, an industry self-regulation organization that deals with truth and accuracy in advertising, released a report, "Advertising & Women," confirming the existence of sexist advertising and criticizing the industry for reinforcing dated stereotypes of men and women. NARB proceeded to offer advertisers guidelines for revising images of women to conform to the realities of a changed society.
What clearly had changed by the mid-1970s, however, was the amount of attention the industry itself paid to images of women in advertising. Companies such as Procter & Gamble Co., which usually only targeted TV spots to women during the day, began buying time on nightly news programs to reach working women. Studies of women's representation in the media in academic and industry journals proliferated during the mid-1970s, putting more pressure on the industry to make changes. Jean Kilbourne's influential 1976 film "Killing Us Softly" assessed the industry's sexism in particularly devastating and detailed ways that produced widespread industry response. (The film was updated in 1987 as "Still Killing Us Softly" and again in 2000 as "Killing Us Softly 3.")
Both print ads and TV spots from the 1970s and early '80s began to reflect the impact of feminism. Some ads from the 1970s portrayed women in non-traditional roles, such as jockeys and airline pilots. In addition, ads increasingly featured husbands fixing dinner for their working wives or taking care of children, and ads for convenience foods began to target the working woman who did not have time to cook. One particularly popular and successful campaign was Revlon's 1970s ads for Charlie perfume, which featured model Shelley Hack as a confident, assertive young woman who very much identified herself with the feminist movement.
The presence of women in the advertising business also changed because of the women's movement. As historian Linda Lazier-Smith has suggested, advertising experienced a "feminization at both university and industry levels" in the 1970s and '80s. The number of women in advertising nearly tripled from 1973 to 1986. Women finally received equal pay with men at starting levels, although men continued to occupy most upper-level and management jobs
The backlash years
However, the mid-to-late 1980s were widely perceived by feminists as a time of backlashes against feminism in both politics and the media. Women were portrayed as insecure and dependent on men while listening fearfully to their "biological clocks," a social phenomenon that was a direct consequence of the postponed choices made possible by the feminist movement.
While feminists continued to monitor women's representation in advertising into the 21st century, advertisers and feminists were no longer trying to work together. In terms of employment in the business of advertising, women did not advance as quickly as some feminist activists once predicted. And feminists who hoped that having women in key positions of power and influence within the industry would help promote a feminist agenda regarding the portrayal of women in advertising were largely disappointed. While there have been women executives within advertising, as the careers of Rochelle "Shelly" Lazarus at Ogilvy & Mather and Charlotte Beers at J. Walter Thompson Co. attest, they have been successful because of their ability to set effective marketing strategies and manage for long-term growth.
Consequently, some feminists have been frustrated in their efforts to change the advertising industry from within according to their vision. Linda Busby and Greg Leichty's 1993 study concluded that the goals of feminists and advertisers are incompatible and, perhaps, even directly opposed.
By the 21st century, feminism's impact on advertising could be felt most in society's increased awareness of sexism in advertising, an awareness continually encouraged by feminist scholars, journalists, advertisers and activists. There are currently many Internet sites devoted to the representation of women, and a large number of international women's organizations continue both to monitor women's representation and to resist increasing global domination by a small number of corporations in which women have very little power.