Companies Violate Ethics and Fail Publicly through Sexist Ads

by cindybrugge

sexist spanking ad

Would an ad like this be successful today? Hopefully, not. We’ve come pretty far, since the 1950’s when most advertisements remained highly sexist. However, after browsing the Internet today, I am reminded that we have been fooled. Although the world touts equality for both sexes, sexism heavily infiltrates advertising today. It’s scattered across television, computers and print. Everywhere we turn, men and women are simplified to the simplest stereotypes and used to sell products. Although both sexes have had their share of sexist advertisements, I’ve focused on female misrepresentation and divided this year’s advertising sexism into three categories:

1. Advertisements that blatantly use sexual situations to sell a product to men.

In these ads, breast-bouncing, skin-baring babes help sell sex, more than the product that they are advertising. Some of 2014’s classless contenders are the Axe advertisement that reduced women to helpless creatures completely controlled by their sexual desires and the Carl’s Jr. ad that revealed a half-naked model biting into a large, juicy sandwich (which likely contains more calories than she eats in a week).


These companies are known for their tendency to go overboard with inappropriate sexual content. In fact, Carl’s Jr. had an advertisement banned this year, in which a scantily clad model eats a large hotdog (or rather, licks it.) Watch at your own risk.

These commercials represent an entire genre of current-day advertising that uses women to sexualize a product and sell it to men in an almost parody-like fashion; a perfect example is this Perrier commercial. What on earth does this woman pouring sparkling water on herself have to do with Perrier? It’s ridiculous.

2. Advertisements that sell products to women, by placing women in stereotypical female roles.

True Car is a website that helps users decide on the right price for a vehicle. Its 2013 advertisement showed a series of women being interviewed about the website and was heavily criticized for feeding the stereotype that women aren’t knowledgeable about cars and need a man to help them with their car-buying purchase. One direct quote about purchasing a car was, “Now, I don’t need to bring a dude with me.” This reliance on past perceptions of female roles has penetrated advertisements for decades and continues to show up today.

Another culprit of this mistake is D.C. Metro, which displayed large posters of two women talking. In the photo, one woman acknowledges some safety fact about the trains and the other woman asks, “Can’t we just talk about shoes?” These two women are in business attire and could easily be in an office setting, but (obviously) their natural inclination is to chat about accessories. This breaks down the quality of female conversation from intellectual material to superficial chitchat. It hardly painted the company in a positive light and received some negative backlash.


As a major supporter of Google, it broke my heart to see the Gmail ad Google released this year, which explained the benefits of Gmail’s new sorting system that divides mail into categories, such as “Promotions” and “Social.” In this ad, the female account owner received emails in each of her categories and every single message represented a different stereotype. From emails about knitting club to e-receipts from shoe shopping to comments about going on a date, the message sent from this advertisement gave no hint that this female might have a job, have any original hobbies or even live in the 21st century. From such a forward-thinking company, I would expect more from Google to promote female empowerment.

3. The rest of advertisements – in which companies use Photoshop to create sub-human, perfected creatures to sell products.

The frustration with computer-edited photographs has been a long-standing problem for many within the feminist community. We all know that even the most beautiful models are retouched to look “flawless” for the camera. However, in many ways it plays up an unreachable perception for many people.

Sorry Julia, but no one looks like this naturally.


This was the exact point of the Body Evolution video released last year. Many advertisements are simply the art of a computer touch-up brush and no reflection of actual reality. In fact, the picture above might have been further edited, if the editors weren’t instructed to keep the structural integrity of Julia Roberts’ face to keep her recognizable to the public.

When computers change the look of a person to such an extreme measure, we have to ask – is this even ethical? Furthermore, is it ethical to use women as walking sex billboards? What about promoting a stereotypical role that inaccurately presents a present-day female lifestyle? Is advertising today ethical?

On a sexist scale, probably not. Multiple traditional ethical theories stand in the way of supporting the treatment of women in today’s advertising industry. This post will refer to three theories: feminism, utilitarianism and distributive justice.

Feminism is an obvious supporter of ending sexism in advertising. Ultimately, this framework calls for “justice for women” in all areas of society. Feminists have, for many years, fought the media for their portrayal of women and sexism, in general.

Likewise, utilitarianism would likely support the absolution of sexist advertising. This ethical theory encourages companies to consider the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Females make up 51% of the U.S. population. Additionally, many men disagree with sexist advertising. For this reason, if companies are considering utilitarianism, they should think twice before releasing a sexist ad. In reality, this is also valid because sometimes the repercussions of unethical advertisements lead to the ad being taken down and a decline in public opinion. If a majority of the public will be offended, then it’s probably best not to release it.

Distributive justice further supports this opinion, as this framework looks out for the needs of every member of society and protects the minority. Through the lens of distributive justice, a fair member should consider everyone and if ANYONE would be bothered then, again, it’s probably best not to release it.

Well in the real world we know that we can’t always keep everyone happy. Yet, that is no reason to abandon ethics all together. Some advertising executives would say that ethics doesn’t matter, that we should focus on sales. However, this simply isn’t logical. Why? Women make up 85 percent of consumer purchases. Representing women effectively could lead to higher sales and better public opinion of company.

Dove has found a way to respectfully represent women, by being a longtime supporter of making normal woman feel beautiful. Dove has used this attitude as their primary ad campaign for many years. This year, they released a new commercial that brought tears to my eyes. They brought women in to a portrait artist, without either party seeing the other. Both facing in opposite directions, the artist drew the woman only by asking her questions about her features and drawing the details that she told him. Next, the same situation was repeated, except someone else told the artist what the woman looked like. When comparing the two portraits, it was obvious. Many women see themselves much less attractive than they actually are. “We spend a lot of time as women analyzing and trying to fix the things that aren’t quite right and we should spend more time appreciating the things we do like,” one woman in the ad said. Dove aims to bring in normal women and use them to remind the general public that beauty is in all of us – not just the size 0 models. The commercial ends with these words – “You are more beautiful than you think.

This attitude does so much more for a company than just slapping an attractive woman up on an advertisement, with a bottle of Dove moisturizer in the bottom corner. It turns Dove into a trusty friend, whom you can trust to open up to and be honest with.

We need more of this type of advertising. Ads should empower both sexes and not isolate one group negatively to increase sales quotas. 80% of Americans have said that they feel better when they purchase from companies that align themselves with a good cause, according to an advertising ethics speech by Chris Moore, of advertising company Oglivy & Mather. Companies, such as Dove, are seeing the truth in that statement. By staying true to ethical advertising, it can boost sales and might help employees sleep better at night.