Fighting unrealistic female stereotypes in advertising

Advertisements have an immense impact on our lives, not only through product representation but the portrayal of personas: who are these people in ads who have enviable lives that we unconsciously want to resemble?

Advertisements are social products, mirroring and forming a society’s values, expectations and dilemmas, thus having an extremely important role in how members of the society view themselves, and more attention is drawn to female representation in ads, as they are proven to convey unrealistic images of women.

Karina Condei, strategic planner of Romanian Brandstalk summarizes the problem of limiting female representation to just a few clichés: depicting women as objects of desire creates an unrealistic image of women in the audience and also pressures women to become like it, which leads to lower self-esteem, a restricted view of self-development and possibly body dysmorphia.

Condei states in her article in the CANnual Report 2022 that women have had a very stereotypical representation: “In Romania, there were several campaigns over time that promoted a narrow, limited, often offensive image of women, encouraging sexism and objectification. They presented the classic role of the happy housewife, needy and fragile, obsessed with cleaning products as if her most gratifying role in this Universe were removing stains from different kinds of fabric.” Other aspects of the female portrayal in Romanian ads have been unfocused attention and clumsiness, women in advisory roles who are just simply not as good as men. But where do these stereotypes come from?

Ancient goddesses = influencers

Mythological personas featured in ancient stories and legends had represented not only different archetypes but stages of life too, in case of women displaying female values approved or expected by at a certain time by society, just as ads do today.

Dr. Zita Komár, communication and media researcher at Corvinus University of Budapest draws parallel between ancient goddesses and modern female archetypes represented by media and advertising. The modern influencer, the young, beautiful archetype fits the image of Hebe/Juventa, while Hestia/Vesta, who remained a virgin oversees creating a cosy home and stability, while protecting the classic value – home décor, gardening or any DIY project often channels this archetype. Hera/Juno and Leto/Latona represent different mother roles, with varying emphasis on tradition, stability, or having power, being a super-mom. Aphrodite/Venus represented the ultimate dream girl, the true sex symbol, who is irresistible and tempting– when we say sex sells, this is the woman it sells with. Artemis/Diana stands for the archetype of a strong, competitive woman, who focuses on her career. Although the expectations of staying young are innate, the archetype of a more mature, wiser woman is also represented through Demeter/Ceres: as the goddess of agriculture, growth – both literally and figuratively – she shows that beside getting those ever-feared wrinkles, getting older also means obtaining further values beyond beauty.

Dr. Komár lists another ancient archetype: Athena/Minerva, the goddess of reasoning, intelligence, and wisdom – who could be a great representation of a recognised, popular female leader with professional skills and emotional intelligence, and whom advertisers are simply avoiding. This lack of representation of competent, but approachable female leader is just one symptom of an array of unrealistic portrayal of woman, not just mirroring, but also forming attitudes today.

Way to go

Ads strengthened these unrealistic expectations not only through the stereotypical roles, but the heavily modified body images that were made possible by retouching. As Paul Suggett writes: “women’s bodies are not just flawless, they are anatomically impossible.” Portraying women as sex objects manifests with crushing consequences when they are treated as objects: abuse is supported by the notion that women are pretty things, who can never compete with their male counterparts and need to stay in their traditional roles as wives and mothers.

Condei brings a sad example from Romania: a social initiative at their agency where they collaborated with the Network to Prevent and Tackle Violence against Women (VIF) to raise awareness about virginity testing. This abusive practice still performed in Romania today, where young girls suffer the test to determine their “chastity”, mostly upon their father’s request.

This practice shows just how important is to bring these harmful and outdated practices to light and fight unrealistic expectations towards women with education and fair representation. Many brands have recognized their role in this – alternatively their advantage in addressing women through more realistic messages and started to work towards change.

Women who were underrepresented in body size, age, ethnicity or even sexual identity are appearing in ads and product photos. Dove was the first brand who has shown that women with different shapes, sizes and colours have their place in their ads and are beautiful and featured them without Photoshop. Since then, many brands display “real” women in their product photos, meaning without retouch: ASOS, H&M, Adidas, Olay, Fenty are just some of these.

Mercedes provides and other example for portraying strong, successful female leaders. She’s Mercedes is an initiative where high-profile women share their experience in career-building, provide advice and talk about current issues. Weronika Szwarc-Bronikowska, Vice President of Media People was chosen to be featured in this campaign, showing how a successful woman from the CEE region strives to find harmony in her profession, private life, and passion.


The CANnual Report will be out later this autumn, check back for it!

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