I wanted to open this blog post with a witty sentence introducing my topic, why the era of sexualizing women in advertisements needs to end, and googled ‘sex sells’ for inspiration. The second hit had the following description:
Here is the cold hard truth, “Sex Sells.” Hate it or love it, sex attracts the eye more than any other type of advertisement (Ovsyannykov).
In lieu of this, here is my introduction, albeit angrier and less witty than I had originally intended:
Here is the cold hard truth, we live in a patriarchal society: women currently earn $0.79 to every dollar made by men and it will be another century before gender equality is achieved in top management positions if we continue at the current pace (Bloomberg). Hate it or love it, barriers and obstacles to gender parity are rampant in society, one of the most pervasive being the presentation of women in advertisement as sexual and trivial beings. “Sex sells,” it attracts the eye, capturing the attention of audiences, but it is not the only means of effective advertising. In fact, for products or services that have nothing to do with sex, sexual advertisements can be less effective than non-sexual advertisements (Lynn).
The chocolate industry is plagued by marketing campaigns that marginalize women, depicting them as sexual objects unable to resist the temptation of chocolate. By portraying women in this light, these advertisements are helping to maintain gender stereotypes and harming the mental health of young girls. The chocolate industry, particularly as a non-sexual industry, has a moral obligation to move away from using gendered stereotypes in advertisements.
Chocolate Advertisements: A Gendered Portrayal
In “Chocolate, Women, and Empire: A Social and Cultural History,” Emma Robertson discusses the portrayal of women in the chocolate industry versus the reality of their position. She traces chocolate from the harvest of the cacao in Africa to production in factories to consumption, and offers that advertising “failed to represent the actual economic, political, and social conditions in which Rowntree and Cadbury products, and ultimately profits, were produced” (Robertson, 19). Women were fetishized as housewives and mothers, shown as irrational narcissistic consumers, and objective as “sexual objects to maintain male morale” (Robertson, 30). Prior to WWII, they were solely depicted in the workplace during wartime although they were responsible for the production of chocolate bars in factories during peace times.
For more examples of the sexualization of women in chocolate advertisements, check out this web page from Carla Martin’s “Bittersweet Notes: Chocolate, Culture, and the Politics of Food.”
The Sexualization of Women: Dramatic Effects
By depicting women in such a sexualized way, the chocolate industry is subliminally enforcing the antiquated stereotype that women are objects. This bolsters the current societal inequities and provides supporting evidence to stereotypes. This has a couple noteworthy implications for the workplace: it may make people less likely to inherently trust and support the rise of women in managerial positions, and also can serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Constantly bombarded by the idea that women are meant for the house not office, women can internalize this message and consequentially not try to rise the corporate ranks or stand up for themselves and demand an earned salary/position.
In 2007, the American Psychological Association (APA) published a study that found that the sexualization of women in the media has negative effects on young girls who are exposed to it, effecting cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, and healthy sexual development (Zurbriggen). Research finds a strong linkage between sexualization and eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression, three of the most commonly diagnosed mental problems in girls and women (Zurbriggen). This means that the take away for young girls viewing the sexy chocolate ads described above is not the product advertised but the characteristics of the oftentimes female model.
Changing the Dialogue: Our Kit Kat Advertisement
In hopes of changing the focus of chocolate advertisements, we chose to recreate a Nestlé Kit-Kat advertisement from the “One-minute break” campaign created by Zoopa, an Italian agency in 2008. Inspired by the “One-Minute Sculptures” of Erwin Wurum, this ad campaign features various professionals in silly positions with a Kit Kat bar. Unlike the featured men who are shown in appropriate workplace clothing, the woman is shown in a revealing skirt with a high front slit even though skirt suits generally have a small slit in the back for the sole purpose of allowing for greater leg mobility when walking. While the painter is shown with brushes and a ladder, the doctor with a stethoscope, and the businessman with a laptop, the woman is shown solely with a rolling chair, an object that does not increase productivity whatsoever, particularly as standing desks become more and more popular in the workplace.
Our advertisement (below on the right; the original advertisement is below on the left) is empowering: we clothed our model in a pantsuit just like the other members of the campaign. The laptop she carries and the added tagline, “Two perfect presentations down, two to go. Have a break, you earned it”, not only stress her professionalism but also the role of Kit-Kats as an enjoyable midday energy-booster. With her head turned, the focus is on the Kit-Kat bar, not the model, with the red packaging standing out starkly against the light backdrop. These changes keep the main intended message from the original advertisement intact, “Have a break. Have a Kit Kat,” while dramatically improving the subliminal message – that women can be powerful agents in the workplace.
Moving Forward: A Moral Obligation
The portrayal of women in advertisements has not naturally followed nor kept pace with the changing social roles of women, and it is time chocolate companies, particularly the Big 5, transform their marketing practices. To encourage change, governments should follow the European Union, who in 2008 passed a resolution urging Member States to honor the ‘European Pact for Gender Equality’ by tackling marketing and advertising (Van Hellemont and Van den Bulck). Specifically, they called on Member States to ensure:
“by appropriate means that marketing and advertising guarantee respect for human dignity and integrity of the person, are neither directly nor indirectly discriminatory nor contain any incitement to hatred based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation.”
Although enforcing this type of legislation can be difficult, it can create incentives for change. The resolution suggested Member States create public awards for companies and campaigns that create advertisements emphasizing gender equality. This incentivizes companies by providing them with the opportunity to gain free media attention across a large population. The legislation also starts a dialogue, and public pressure can be the strongest catalyst for change.