What Advertisements Are Telling Us About Ourselves

News flash: Sexism is alive and well in advertising, and this video, simply titled “Representations of Gender in Advertising,” provides all the proof you need. It’s not a new video — it first hit YouTube in April of 2013 — but it’s making the rounds again, and for good reason. It’s definitely worth talking about.

Created as a project for a Women and Gender Studies class at the University of Saskatchewan, the video examines how women have been portrayed in advertisements throughout history, how they’re portrayed in them today, and what happens when you swap out the women for men. It even touches on how men are portrayed in advertising, and guess what? The messages communicated about masculinity are just as problematic as the messages about femininity.

Although a good deal of the YouTube commenters are dismissive of feminism, unnecessarily vitriolic, or both, some of them do bring up some good points. The video does cover a pretty narrow scope; for example, the ads featured pretty much exclusively depict white women, which means there’s no discussion about how women of other backgrounds are affected by advertising. Additionally, if they really wanted to gender swap the ads, it probably would have been more accurate to use men who fit an equally specific standard of male beauty. I suspect the non-Adonis men used are a result of the video being a school project; most college students don’t have access to top tier models, whether they’re male or female.

But that said, the analysis of the images’ composition is spot on. The ad up top, for example, is meant to sell coffee. WTF about a man spanking a woman says "Hey, buy this coffee!"? No idea. Or how about this one, which shills a men's fragrance?

Because obviously if you wear CK Obsession for Men, Kate Moss will appear naked at your door. Or this one, for women's shoes?

Uh, sorry, but can anyone explain to me why I would want to wear those shoes if it just means some guy is going to shove me in a trunk, drive me out to the desert, and possibly bury me out there?

If this many ads portray women in the same way — sexually submissive, objectified, weak, stupid, good only for their looks, and only then if they fit a specific type — then it’s clearly not just an isolated incident. We may not always consciously register the effect these sorts of advertisements have on us — but when we’re surrounded by them day in and day out, of course we’re going to end up internalizing them. In fact, it’s even scarier when you consider the fact that we’re doing it without even noticing it.

And it gets even weirder when you gender swap them. Here's the coffee ad with the roles reversed:

And the cologne one:

And the shoe one:

On one level, they're kind of comical — but they're comical because the men aren't portrayed as masculine. And that? Is also kind of an issue. The same way women shouldn't have to see themselves as objects, men should see themselves as less "manly" for doing traditionally feminine things. Everyone loses in the game of sexism.

I recently had someone respond to my post about the Subway “sexy Halloween costume” ad by telling me my beef wasn’t with Subway, it was with their audience — the advertisers were just giving people what they want. Putting aside the fact that no one should really be telling anyone, “No, it’s not that you don’t like this thing that you said you don’t like — this is what you really don’t like” (because honestly, how would you know? The only person whose thoughts you know are your own, so trying to tell other people that they feel a specific way when they don’t is usually a bad idea)… well, it’s just not that simple, and I think that’s what this “Representations of Gender in Advertising” video speaks to. Sure, they might be giving us what we want — but why do we want it? Because we’ve been told time and time again by advertisements, movies, television, and pretty much every other kind of media out there that it’s what we should want. It’s perpetuating the cycle, and that’s where the problem lies.

And women aren’t the only victims of advertising tricks. As I mentioned earlier, I appreciate the fact that the video does at least speak a little bit about how men are portrayed; according to ads, dudes should be like the Marlborough Man: Strong, manly dudes who probably hide their feelings and never give any sign that they might not be the studs they outwardly appear to be. Here's that ad in its original form:

And here it is gender-swapped:

I think it’s an issue that needs to be explored more, though — and that goes for a lot of demographics. The video shows what advertising is like for white women. What about how it is for Black women? Asian women? Latina women? Or men of various backgrounds? We might not be able to change how advertisements have treated people in the past, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change how it treats them in the future — no matter who they are.

Watch the full video here:

Image: Sarah Zelinski/YouTube