Midcentury Sexism in Advertising

I wrote this essay a couple of years ago, and I thought I would like to share it with you. This is the kind of sexism we are still battling today. This essay is based on a vintage Pepsi commercial.

I have a love/hate relationship with vintage ads. On the one hand, I am infatuated with the idealism portrayed by so many images from the 1940s and 50s – and, certainly, the fashion of the era. On the other, I am a socially intelligent woman of the 21st century, and I can see through that idealist propaganda fairly easily. Alas, it remains difficult to resist the nostalgia of midcentury America, and so I chose a Pepsi ad, originally aired in 1957, for my analysis project. While this ad is positively soggy with the kind of blatant sexism which would ignite women today, Pepsi’s manipulation of conditioned desires in women is effective, and arguably no different than marketing strategies still used toward women today.

With a title like, “Awesomely Sexist Pepsi Ad,” there really should be no surprises as to its content. The commercial smacks of a fairytale, which is immediately appealing to women, of course. It is narrated by a strong-voiced man, who introduces us to an “ordinary little girl” – it’s important that she is ordinary, so that more women will identify with her – but he is also careful to point out that she is “quite beautiful.” In so saying, he has set a standard (or perhaps, done no more than reinforce the existing standard) for which the female audience has already been conditioned to strive. Now that the commercial has primed its female audience with the key words, “ordinary,” and “beautiful,” it can continue setting standards with other key phrases. The narrator tells us that our ordinary, beautiful girl grows up to marry an ordinary, handsome boy, and they live “happily ever after.” If we lay aside the fact that “beautiful” and “handsome” must follow “ordinary”) as though anything less than physical attractiveness would be entirely out of the ordinary,) we are still left with the box into which every ordinary girl must fit: be ordinary, be beautiful, and marry a handsome man.

Then, we see “our heroine” in her kitchen (you know – where she belongs), where the narrator reminds us that “a girl has to work at living ‘happily ever after.’ First, our heroine decided to stay beautiful, slim, and attractive.” Now, wait. Before, he only said she was beautiful. Suddenly, she is also slim and attractive. These three words are meant to be grouped together in the listener’s mind, so that ‘slim’ and ‘attractive’ become the defining aspects of ‘beautiful.’

“So, she went for long walks,” the narrator says, as our heroine departs her spotless kitchen and pushes a baby carriage out of the scene. Here, the commercial lengthens the list of societal expectations: be ordinary, be beautiful, slim AND attractive, be married and bear children, let your kitchen be pristine and your hair perfectly coiffed, and – what was this commercial about, again? We’re 40 seconds in, and there has been no mention of a product yet!

The narrator now mentions that our “heroine” also engages in “competitive sports,” as the shot focuses on the woman joining a group of other women shopping for purses. It seems that shopping is the girl version of “competitive sports,” and the rules are: get the prettiest thing away from the other girls, and keep that thing for ourselves. The sparkly purse she proudly holds becomes a “trophy,” as the narrator so proudly calls it, turning a trophy not into a reward for an accomplishment, but an acquisition gained by aggression, turning the screws of the kind of conditioned materialism from which we are still suffering today.

We close the scene with our heroine serving her husband a Pepsi as we’re reminded that she has stayed “beautiful, slim, and attractive.” “And with that, our story ends,” the narrator says.

What we’ve watched here is essentially a minute and a half of instruction on how a woman should live and behave, and about six seconds of actual advertisement. This is why it is so important for 21st century women to continue the fight against ingrained sexism.


One thought on “Midcentury Sexism in Advertising

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s