Scientists and Butterflies: Sexism in Advertising

The hit TV series Mad Men is jam-packed with misogyny and sexist quips; and despite the shows criticism over these character flaws, a danger lies in the fact it lets us believe that sexism is a resigned aspect of a retro ’60s world.  Yet even this month, the issues within the industry such as the Saatchi & Saatchi controversy, Gap’s Little Scholar and Social Butterfly and Sprite’s unfortunate copy, have shown just how far we still have to go.

With barely one in 10 senior creative jobs in advertising held by women, the debate surrounding gender bias is hardly ‘all over’. Kevin Roberts, the now former chairman of Saatchi & Saatchi denied that sexism is a serious problem in advertising and asserted that male-centric notions of career achievement don’t necessarily apply to women. That’s right Roberts, sexism isn’t real and women don’t want to progress; Don Draper would be proud. 

So what is the issue with sexism in advertising? Perhaps it is centred in advertisement itself. One of the most basic constructs, almost universal to the entire humankind is gender. Traditional femininity and masculinity is continuously being utilised by advertisers. Femininity is traditionally understood as being emotional, nurturing, focused on appearances, and subordinate to the hegemonic male. While men have a certain social pressure on their shoulders as well, such cultural baggage consecutively pushes advertisers to pull down various ads. Either due to being obviously sexist, or just utterly rude and demeaning, see: Sprite.




The newest campaign for the Coca-Cola brand has just jumped on the sexist bandwagon implying that women, nowadays sexually liberated, are simply sexual objects. By simplifying this concept it became further distorted, implying that due to such sexual openness women fill the role of ‘whore’. Not only that, subordinate ones. After all, how else can one admire a ceiling unless you’re being pinned down by a partner? There is another way though! How about being  famous and highly successful, just like Michelangelo himself?

The tradition of sexualising and objectifying women in the media is long and (borrowing the voice from Ted Mosby): unfinished. Although men had pretty much caught up with female models in this sense, through such personas as the Marlboro Man, or Old Spice’s spokesperson. In a world where we all objectify and are objectified we’ve also learnt to cope better. Although such presentations still spark controversy, studies show that we’re much less offended by them. Not saying we’re absolutely ‘cool’, but we do accept objectification, especially if used with certain taste or given an artsy edge.

The persisting problem revolves around social opportunities, as well as good old power and dominance.

We’re not simply angry because the woman in Sprite’s ad is described as frivolous, but because she’s being put right next to an amazing artist. Once again we’ve been presented with the typical association between a lesser woman and a male role model.

Similarly with Gap’s little slip. The boy; a scholar, and the girl; a bright star, but only because of her looks. The issue here is even more important. As adults we’re increasingly sceptical regarding messages we’re being bombarded with. We know that it’s sexism; and that it’s wrong. In turn, although it still affects us, it does so to a lesser degree. We’re not going to define ourselves as social butterflies, but instead confront and challenge it.




Pushing gender onto children from a young age is a relatively new idea. Although a chance that anyone would remember the times when equally boys and girls paraded in white dresses until the age of eight is pretty much zero, such practices were still common around a hundred and fifty years ago. It wasn’t until later that children started to be defined by more or less frills and bows, pockets and pant legs or lack thereof.

So is it the advertisements that need to be changed? Or those leading it? If more women were given leadership roles within advertising, would we still be faced with this problem? Regardless, if something doesn’t change, only new generations of Don Drapers will thrive.

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