Over the past 100 years, advertising featuring women and for women has changed dramatically. The #MeToo movement and the rise of “fempowerment” have seen adverts embrace female body positivity and inclusivity.

In stark contrast to the housewives of mid-20th Century advertising, many companies understand the importance of depicting women as strong, confident, and independent. Advertising is no longer overtly misogynistic.

But sexism, as you’re probably aware, persists in advertising. It’s just not quite as obvious.

Today, brands still revert to featuring outmoded feminine ideals in their marketing. And while we have made leaps and bounds in misogynistic marketing, subtle stereotyping continues to hold us back.

The term for this type of covert sexist advertising? Sneaky sexism.

What Is Sneaky Sexism?

Sneaky sexism is a term coined by Jane Cunningham and Philippa Roberts, former members of the leadership teams at Ogilvy and DDB, London, and now founders of PrettyLittleHead (PLH) – a research company that helps marketers better understand female audiences.

Cunningham and Roberts published the book ‘Brandsplaining: Why Marketing is (Still) Sexist and How to Fix It.’ Sneaky sexism is a form of brandsplaining, which is just what the name suggests.

Brandsplaining, more generally, is where brands feel they are in control of the relationship between themselves and the customer and believe they can control what the customer wants and how they should behave.

Cunningham and Roberts explain that “sneaky sexism” is where advertisers sneakily slip forms of sexism into their marketing campaigns, so they remain relevant to their audience and avoid the dreaded cancel culture movement.

What Does Sneaky Sexism Look Like?

This form of sexist advertising is implicit rather than explicit.

The example below - from the UK government no less - was heavily criticised and, ultimately, withdrawn during the height of the global pandemic.

UK Government

And there are several further examples of this. Though we are seeing a departure from the overt pink and blue marketing tactic, female advertising now features more floral decorations and softer pastel colour palates.

Marc Jacobs

On the other hand, male adverts feature darker, earthy tones like grey, black and dark greens, and blues. Clearly, an element of sexism is still prevalent - it’s just more disguised.


Other examples of sneaky sexism can be seen in how certain product descriptions are phrased. Diet pills or weight loss programs are advertised as “wellness” products, and anti-ageing creams are now branded as “ageless” or “age-defying.”

One final example to look out for when it comes to sneaky sexism is the way brands phrase the “fix it” narrative.

Instead of brands telling women they need to change their body, hair, or make-up to be externally beautiful, brands are now saying women need to fix their behaviour and learn to love themselves from the inside out. Do you remember the Peloton ad from Christmas 2019?

This final example may be well-intentioned, but it can be equally damaging.

Telling women to be braver, bolder, more outspoken, or stronger is still criticism, but now the focus is on changing their character. What these ads are suggesting, is that if we don’t fit this new mould of the strong woman, we are again failing.

Has Sexist Advertising Evolved?

Ever since the early 1920s, advertising for women has been created through the male gaze, portraying women in a way that empowers men while sexualizing and diminishing women.

Women were often shown in a negative light and featured explicit criticism of their looks or their inability to look after their house and family. This was called the perfectionist narrative.

Take a look at this example from Kellogg’s from 1939.

The line reads “So, the harder a wife works, the cuter she looks.” This statement is implying that if a woman doesn’t work hard to please her husband, she will not only be a failure as a housewife but also appear ugly because of it.

This perfectionist narrative has persisted over the years, morphing into the “good girl” phenomenon. The “good girl” was a term used to describe the ideal woman, which was attractive, passive, young, thin, and white.

Most, if not all, adverts featured women that fit this description.

Fast forward to today, you would think that the good girl phenomenon was a thing of the past, but it’s not. Today, 25% of ads that feature women are presented in a sexualized way, and 85% of these women still fit the good girl mould.

To combat these forms of sexist marketing, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned ‘harmful’ gender stereotyping in adverts in 2019. These rules set by the ASA state that adverts must not include gender stereotypes that could cause harm or offence.

However, throughout 2019 and 2020, these rules have faced serious backlash. During the first 6 months of these rules coming into effect, the UK’s ad watchdog received 516 complaints about 229 individual commercials.

Volkswagen and People Per Hour were among the first brands to have their adverts banned in the UK over featuring outdated stereotypes of women.

Why Is Sneaky Sexism So Important Today?

As it stands, marketing for women is not just unrepresentative, it's damaging.

Cunningham and Roberts spent 15 years researching femvertising, and surveyed 14,000 women in 14 countries across four continents to understand their attitudes and beliefs about marketing and advertising.

Results from their study showed that marketing is still representing women as “vacant and dumb”, and only 3% of ads displayed women as funny or doing something that required any form of intellect.

Modern marketing is also very harmful to women with body dysmorphia, as 63% of those surveyed believe advertising is partly to blame for eating disorders as they reflect unrealistic beauty standards.

Misrepresentation is not the only problem when it comes to sexist marketing, it’s the lack of women in advertising. Only 37% of those who appear in ads are women, and if they are cast they are usually featured in stereotypical roles like housewives.

Men speak about 7 times more than women in advertising, and 78% of ads feature men as the primary decision-makers.

4 Ways to Avoid Sexist Advertising

Women do not need to be told by brands how they should look or act. Women are smart, less concerned about marriage and children, and don’t want to conform to an ideal to please men.

Advertising to women using the perfectionist or good girl narrative is no longer viable if you want to be successful. To help, we’ve provided four ways to help tackle sexist advertising.

Hire Women for Creative Roles

As it stands today, only 3% of creative directors at ad agencies are women. So, we need to work on creating a balanced gender workforce and provide opportunities for more women, in particular, more older women and more women of colour to into the world of advertising.

If the majority of global ad agencies are predominantly made up of young, white males, then a female point of view will most likely be missing from future advertising.

Talk to Women

This is where a lot of agencies fall short.

85% of women feel that advertising “needs to catch up to the real world when depicting women.” And if you’re not sure what women want to see throughout your marketing then there’s a simple solution... talk to women.

There are plenty of ways you can obtain thoughts from your female audience. To start, you could create online questionnaires and ask for feedback on your previous adverts, or you could ask them what they would like to see in upcoming campaigns.

You could also hold focus groups to gain this information. Make sure your focus groups are diverse and include women of different ages, sexuality, and ethnicities to ensure you’re gaining a detailed insight into how women want to be portrayed.

Be Constructive, Not Critical

The language you choose to use in any advert will either make or break you. When thinking about the language you want to include in your female-focused advertising, choose wisely.

Remember, women do not need to be fixed. Avoid using language that implies that women are failures. Also, avoid language that relates to physical appearance or external beauty.

Cunningham and Roberts’s research revealed that physical appearance is a characteristic women do not want to be defined by.

Appearance doesn’t make the top 10 of their list of characteristics that women want to be associated with. Intelligence and sense of humour were at the top. So, think of using words that focus on a woman’s wit and smarts, rather than her external beauty.

Cast Women from All Backgrounds in Decision-Making Roles

As mentioned earlier, too many brands resort to casting women in stereotypical passive roles like housewives, mothers, or assistants.

Showcasing women in progressive, decision-making roles can improve the overall performance of your marketing.

Kantar’s AdReaction study, ‘Getting Gender Right’, found that adverts that featured women in positions of power or demonstrated intellect performed better.

Brands that feature these progressive representations of women increased their brand impact by 37% and increased their purchase intent by 27%.

So, when casting women, feature them in higher-level roles such as business directors, lawyers, or doctors.

Final Thoughts

Though marketing to women has come a long way over the past 100 years, a lot of adverts we see in our daily life are still sexist.

Now is the time to take a step back, see our advertisements through the eyes of women, and create ads that represent women in the way they want to be seen.

By representing women in a more positive and powerful light, your brand can increase your visibility and credibility. The time to ditch this outdated depiction of women is now.

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