Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning. —Benjamin Franklin
I was left shaking my head this morning when Business Insider published an article with 18 ads we would consider horrible and terribly insensitive in today’s society. The purpose of the article was to give us the positive feeling that we have progressed significantly from the ads shown. Among them were racist soap ads, racist Jell-o ads, ads encouraging giving soda to infants, and ads denigrating women in just about every form imaginable. One aftershave ad even seems to encourage rape with copy that reads, “If she doesn’t give it to you, get it yourself.”
We like to think that we have progressed far beyond the stereotypes and social insensitivities of those ads. No one in their right mind today would put a picture of a pear with copy that says, “This Is No Shape For A Girl.” We know better, right? And we’ve even passed federal legislation so cigarette makers can no longer tell us that four out of five doctors smoke Camels. Yet, when we take a broad look at the bulk of advertising in place today, we may not have made as much progress as we would like to think.
Take a look through the advertising on your mobile device or, if you’re old school any major magazine. Notice how many of the ads still favor a stereotypical view of Caucasian people, especially in the areas of fashion, beauty, business, and travel. Within those sectors specifically, a whopping 80% of ads are tilted toward a white audience. Even worse, in many of those ads, especially those related to the hospitality industry, when a person of color is included in the ad it is almost always in a position of service, such as a waiter or hotel staff, further perpetuating the idea that those ethnicities are, for some stupid reason, supposed to serve the white man. Some studies in the health care area show that racial disparities in advertising actually have a negative impact upon the health status of disaffected populations.
Women aren’t faring much better. Just last year, the Bic company ran this ad:
This ad is so offensive to women on so many levels I have to wonder if there was any managerial or even adult oversight in the creation of this campaign. The very notion that women need to think like men for any reason is deplorable, and the inference that women aren’t already the boss are just the start. What does it mean to “look like a girl?” Exactly how does one “act like a lady?” Astonishingly, though, we still see this sort of advertising far too often.
The rape culture in advertising is still alive and well, also. An ad in Bloomingdale’s holiday catalog last year included the caption, “Spike your best friend’s egg nog when they’re not looking,” under a photo of a man leering at a young woman who wasn’t paying attention. Those are the kinds of attitudes that endanger women everywhere as they dismiss the concept of absolute consent. How are we still letting these things get into print?
Ads featuring gay, lesbian, or transgender people are still a hot button and advertising still gets it wrong as often as it gets it right. I hesitate to imagine what our children or grandchildren will think of us when they look back twenty years from now and see that ads such as this one still manage to get air time without censorship:
Fortunately, the New Hampshire bill passed and the Supreme Court finalized the question of gay marriage, but that doesn’t mean that advertising has caught up or has any fewer stereotypes of gay and lesbian couples than it did before. Even if we didn’t have a part in the creation of such politically misguided advertising, we should be embarrassed that we would even allow such patently offensive material to air in the first place.
Even more liberal advertisers have not made as much progress as we would like to think. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA) only removed this billboard after an overwhelmingly large public outcry against it:
Even by 1970s standards, that ad is offensive not to mention that it is misinformative. Eating a vegetarian diet doesn’t help if one’s general intake and eating habits are still unhealthy. Yes, there are diabetic and obese vegetarians. Shaming people because of their size is not helpful.
Ad agencies like to think they’re at the forefront of bringing out social change. Certainly, there are a number of ad campaigns that have done a lot of good in moving us to be more inclusive, understanding, and accepting of each other, as well as encouraging more healthy behavior. But before we get a cramp patting ourselves on the back, we need to take a good look at the places where we still reinforce old stereotypes and insensitive and offensive behavior. We’ve likely not made as much progress as we would like to think.