Imagine an image featuring a tiger skin rug. Don’t worry. You’ll see the hunting of critically endangered species isn’t the problem here. Now imagine, instead of a big cat’s toothy gape, a woman’s head is attached to the skin. She’s beautiful, blonde, and in full glam makeup. Let’s keep going, shall we?
Add a man standing on that rug. He’s wearing a pair of freshly shined loafers and starchly pressed pants. One foot is perched triumphantly atop the woman’s head. She peers up toward the camera with a seductive yet ever-subservient gaze. Is there a caption? So glad you asked.
Below the image, in fresh, bold type, is the proclamation, “It’s nice to have a girl around the house.” The plot is further developed in the ad’s copy, “Though she was a tiger lady, our hero didn’t have to fire a shot to floor her. After one look at his Mr. Legg’s slacks, she was ready to have him walk all over her.”
She was fierce; he is the hero who tamed her, and all he had to do was buy that pair of pants. There’s a lot to unpack.
It’s almost laughable if it wasn’t real. That was an actual advertisement for Dacron’s Mr. Legg’s slacks circa 1970, and it wasn’t anything out of the ordinary for the time.
Ads of the 1970s were riddled with sexism and the exploitation of women. Why? It worked. Companies knew they had a powerful tool in their hands.
The impact of advertising is a driving force in our economy. It compels us to purchase, finance, donate, and charge our way to happiness and success. In many cases, it has to do with our feelings, not facts.
Emotional appeal. You might remember the term from learning persuasive writing in your high school English class, but even if you’ve never studied it, you’re bombarded with it daily.
Emotional appeal is an age-old advertising technique that evokes an emotional response to a topic rather than appealing to logic or practicality.
In the 70s, ads were fueled by social and cultural shifts happening at the time.
Advertising and the Road to Equality
The 1960s and 70s are often considered the “second wave” of the women’s movement. Not since the passage of the 19th amendment, which gave women the right to vote in 1920, had there been much of a stir on the feminist front.
The 1960s ushered in enormous social change with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Although discrimination based on sex was originally left out of the bill, pressure from The National Organization for Women and other women’s groups and legislators led to an amendment that included sex as a protected class under the law.
So what did advertisers do? They played off of the fragile male ego-driven fear of the time that they had to keep control of their women because, gosh darn it, these broads were getting out of hand!
Afraid your wife might start job hunting instead of cooking and cleaning? Buy her the soil-free oven range from Brown; “It’s a wifesaver!” She’ll be dying to get back into the kitchen. Is she neglecting her wifely duties? Put her back in her place by showing her “It’s a man’s world” with your snappy Van Heusen tie.
Men’s emotions weren’t the only target.
Perpetuating Stereotypes: Expectations and Roles
Although advertising companies knew how to exploit Don Draper’s deepest fears, 70s ads also advocated the image women believed they had to uphold.
Slogans like, “Most men ask, ‘Is she pretty? Not, is she clever?'” and “Keep up the house while you keep down your weight.” were rooted in the idea that women not only belonged in the home but were to be visually appealing at all times.
Sadly, getting past that stereotype is still a struggle.
There’s Still a Beauty Standard
Although the industry these days isn’t so focused on keeping women in the kitchen, and there are some incredibly empowering campaigns from companies promoting women’s advancement and achievement, a dark side still lurks in the images that inundate our ads.
Advertising puts enormous pressure on women to look and dress a certain way to be considered attractive. Photoshopped images of perfect bodies and idealistic portrayals of life are nearly inescapable.
It’s a part of our popular culture that requires confidence and vigilance to overcome.
Maintaining the Momentum
We’ve certainly come a long way. Chances are that nowadays, men themselves would cringe at the tone of a 1970s tie ad.
Women comprise nearly half the labor force in the U.S. and are more educated and independent than ever before. They’re also working every day to break stereotypes and shatter barriers built by an unattainable beauty standard.
The sexist ads of the past took their toll, but we can learn and grow from understanding their impact and rejecting their message.
Just remember (dude), we know Victoria’s Secret.