The most telling documentation of our collective history, especially in recent decades, is advertising.
There is little escape from them. While they document the times, they also help to create social realities and can establish and maintain ideas about who we are and how to act (Whitsett). Women have been victimized and controlled by these “instructions” that tell them how to look, how to present themselves, what jobs to have, etc. Modern feminism has made strides in dispelling incorrect assumptions made and promoted by advertisements. Take the various memes on the internet that pair vintage housewives with their “true” thoughts—often hilarious, sarcastic and even sadistic statements. These memes, ironically, utilize the negative portrayal of women in past ads to humanize them today; they represent them as witty, intelligent, and powerful rather than blissfully ignorant and superficial. Again, there are still some aspects of the advertising world that continue to harm women, such as the targeting of women for psychotropic medication by falsely convincing women that they need these mind-altering drugs to live a “normal” life. Advertisement memes also poke fun at the notion that women need drugs to be not so “crazy” or even “bitchy.” It is up to us to continue to encourage the abandonment of these ridiculous societal norms that have been unfairly thrust upon us for companies’ profit.
The classic, sexist ads that permeated the 50s and 60s often depicted a shiny, cartoon-like, and ultimately unrealistic world. Advertising is designed to glamorize a product and incite consumer interest, with no regard to what impact it will have as long as a profit is made (Gangopadhyay). In this particular image from 1949, a woman is clearly enthused by her box of laundry soap, though her emotion seems quite intense for such a trivial item. The advertisement creates this “illusion of happiness” surrounding a mundane object so that the customer is willing to believe this product is better than it actually is (Gangopadhyay). This ad highlights the exploitation of gender roles to sell products—in this case the woman loves this product because it will help her do the laundry and make her perfect housewife. Those who make advertisements “feel the easiest way to gain customer confidence is by referring to stereotype[s] and [a] hierarchal order,” and of course, women are often portrayed as two- dimensional (Gangopadhyay 3). It’s highly detrimental when these types of advertisements cause “some females [to] view ads as life scripts” (Carpenter and Edison 7). Not only do the advertisements present false expectations for women, but they even convince some women they are true and necessary to obtain. And these indications made in the Tide advertisement are still relevant in modern advertising models despite changes in overall aesthetics.
This repurposed image from hipstercards.com depicts a woman with a toothy smile of perfectly white teeth, flawlessly curled and styled hair, perfectly groomed eyebrows and matching red lips and nails—the perfect aesthetic of a 50s housewife. The use of luminous colors and the cartoon look in this image capture the same hyperbolic tendencies of vintage ads—as though everything is just as bright, happy and perfect as the image seems. Although this image can be interpreted as a modern critique of these sexist ads directed towards women of the 50s and 60s, it’s also quite entertaining as an accessible piece of critical humor that anyone can enjoy and make sense of. There is a striking similarity between the Tide advertisement and this meme, however this is not a legitimate product endorsement like the Tide image. This satirical image pokes fun at such ridiculous and demeaning stereotypes of women that often portrayed them as being fulfilled by household products and their husband’s superficial love. It represents a clear cultural shift, one in which women have utilized the sexism of the past to continue to fight the sexism of today. Not only is the previous Zoloft image a critique on vintage advertising addressed to women, but it is also a subtle commentary on the drug companies that treat womanhood as a “disease.” Antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications, such as Zoloft, have often been advertised unapologetically to women since their creation. And its impact has created a vicious cycle. Depicted here is an ad from a 1967 advertisement of a drug called “Serax” that was used to treat anxiety and depression. The woman depicted has an anxious look on her face and it is clear that her house duties are causing her great stress. She is behind pseudo prison bars composed of a broom, a mop, and a feather duster—inferring that she feels trapped by her “womanly duties.” Possibly the most disturbing aspect is that while the ad is clearly very aware of the difficulties that this woman faces, it indicates that this drug will make it all better: a simple solution. In fact, this marketing ploy worked, and this particular type of tranquilizer was prescribed so often to housewives that the drugs were even eventually dubbed “mother’s little helpers” (Sharpe). The advertisement states, “Serax cannot change her environment, of course. But it can help relieve anxiety, tension, agitation and irritability, thus strengthening her ability to cope with day-to-day problems.” The drug is advertised as a solution to the anxiety and depression experienced by housewives, but not the solution to the limited social mobility that imprisoned them.
Once anti-depressants became available on the market during the 1960s, pharmaceutical companies exploited women in order to make a healthy amount of capital. Even today “women appear in a disproportionate number of drug ads, which themselves appear disproportionately in women’s magazines” (Metzel 43). These ads go the extra mile by not only depicting narrow stereotypes but also convincing women that they are ill, when they are in fact, nothing of the sort. According to the pharmaceutical companies, feeling overwhelmed as a woman indicates that they are in dire need of psychoactive medication, as can be seen in the Serax advertisement. These drugs, like the Tide advertisement from 1949, are presented directly to the consumer as “magical” products that can solve all problems; however, instead of encouraging women to buy the product and complete household chores, the ads are encouraging women to take medication that alter the chemistry of the brain.
Here we see another drug ad, ironically one for Zoloft, depicting a modern day woman, in her power suit toting along her two kids going to soccer practice. While this ad is in a different cultural context than the previous Serax one, the advertisement still perpetuates the idea that a woman can only find balance in her life with medication. According to Carpenter and Edison, “[m]any advertisements concentrate on the female ‘ideal,’ an identity to which all women should aspire”, and in the case of this image it is indicated that this woman cannot attain such ideals without medication (7). The image gives the woman a façade of empowerment with her suit, but indicates an underlying weakness with depression, thus possibly convincing women with both jobs and families that they have this problem. There is an advertised need for these psychotropic medications to restore a “normal womanhood” as though there is no other solution (Metzel 43). However, this “need” is heavily exaggerated—so much so that Katherine Sharpe believes “[a]dvertising must be at least partially responsible for the fact that over twice as many women as men use antidepressants." The insecurities of women are exploited to make a huge profit, and it’s working. The two advertisements, while separated by many years, either show a woman failing to thrive in her designated female roles or a women feeling oppressed by the demands of those roles, and according to Sharpe, these medications are offered as a quick solution to those very problems.
Ultimately, these drug companies will do anything to get more customers and hold on to them, even if customer wrongly believes that they have a mental illness. One of the biggest gains for drug companies was when the FDA loosened restrictions on pharmaceutical advertising, and ever since prescription drug use has skyrocketed—particularly amongst women (Metzel 42). These direct advertisements can mostly be found in magazines targeted at women, such as Women’s Health, Cosmopolitan, O magazine, and Good Housekeeping. Whitsett states, “Pharmaceutical companies are businesses that are trying to sell their products, and DTCA [Direct to Consumer Advertisements] is produced with the companies’ best interests in mind” (5). Jonathan Metzel, who has seen many patients coming to him asking for a specific drug they saw in a magazine, notes that the context of a magazine, such as the other articles that surround the ad, can convince women they are mentally ill because they are “unattractive, carelessly dressed or, worst of all, an inattentive mother” (42). This is in great contrast to the Zoloft meme introduced a few paragraphs ago; the woman in the image clearly owns the fact that she, at one point before medication, was a “bitch.” It’s an unapologetic statement to women that is really saying, “Are you really taking that because people say you’re too much of a bitch to function normally?” It negates the powerful emotional appeals of magazine advertisements that cause many to seek unnecessary medication (Whitsett). Where the advertisement incites doubt, the meme grants clarity. It’s funny, candid and a bit disturbing, but ultimately makes the audience the wiser. True, it’s a convincing ploy when drug companies conveniently place their ads in women’s magazines surrounded by trivial articles that can lower self-esteem. However, that’s why one has to be wise about believing that conveniently placed ad for a miracle drug that promises normalcy and fulfillment.
Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) is another example of how woman may be wrongly being convinced that they need medication. There is still no concrete proof that this disorder exists, though it can still be found in the DSM today and the issue is, once again, drugs are being pushed as the one and only solution. Women are being diagnosed with a possibly fake mental disorder and prescribed more medication while better treatments with less side effects can be used, such as diet and exercise changes and group therapy (Caplan). In order to increase profits, the ads from drug companies “lead patients away from seeking non-pharmaceutical related treatments for their illnesses…Rather than investing time into other treatment options, people exposed to these ads are more likely to appeal to the easy, painless, and effective pharmaceutical treatments that are idealized in advertisements” (Whisett 6). This controversy goes back to the stereotype that women are crazy on their periods from PMS and takes it a whole step further by saying something extremely natural is a mental disorder. Caplan also states that women who are diagnosed with PMDD are often in poor life situations and “[to] label them mentally disordered…hides the real external sources of their trouble” (7). In this case, women are being falsely accused of being their problems’ source and given drugs to solve said problems. Women are also accused of “being a bitch” on their periods, and this stereotype of being labeled a bitch has harmed women as much as a false diagnosis of PMDD and drug advertising.
The Zoloft meme utilizes the word “bitch” in its portrayal of the use of anxiety and depression medications as temporary solutions for unhappy women. In fact, in the image, the woman appears to be enthusiastic to have been cured of her “bitchiness” with Zoloft. However, the medication is not a cure for “being a bitch,” but rather is suggested to have been used to tranquilize a woman and make her less averse to the standards set by society for her. This is a criticism of the all too common drug advertisement that “implies that pills can be used to normalize women back to a state of social acceptance,” because being a “bitch” is not socially acceptable (Whitsett 8). The use of this degrading word also highlights the stereotype that women are identified as a “bitch” if they are independent and assertive. However, some feminists have repurposed this terminology to mean something positive. In fact, in 2012 during an SNL weekend update, Tina Fey announced her support for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and defended her in response to people calling her a “bitch.” In the segment, Fey calls herself a bitch, her colleague Amy Poehler a bitch, and states that the world needs bitches because “bitches get stuff done.” She ends her argument with a zealous exclamation that “bitch is the new black!” because according to Fey being a “bitch” is now in. It is influential women like Tina Fey and powerful phrases like “bitches get stuff done” that are able to truly encourage a new generation of empowered women just like the repurposed Zoloft image. And even more images that are similar to the Zoloft meme have surfaced in recent years. Ed Polish and Damen Wotz have a series of books full of empowering statements paired with vintage images of women, each with a title that utilizes the word bitch (the full list of this series can be found on Alibris, among other places). These are important because they transfer the power behind the word from derogatory to legitimizing. While unfair gender stereotypes are still recurring problems in society, people are much more aware of them and fight to undermine their prevalence.
While advertisements can aid businesses in increasing their profits, the dignity and humanity of those being advertised to might be sacrificed for this “greater purpose.” It seems as though women are always victim to hyperbolic and superfluous advertising, and even worse,
women are being persuaded that they are “ill” because of these images—two extremely detrimental scenarios in the fight for gender equality. Because advertisements have such a powerful impact upon our perception of reality, the perceptions created by them, whether that is only women do the housework or psychoactive drugs are needed for “normalcy”, can become a prominent feature of actual reality. Fortunately, modern feminists are much more aware of the effectiveness of advertisements and perpetuated female stereotypes in particular. Nowadays, honest and entertaining satire ridicules these harmful advertisements by exposing them for what they truly are, a compilation of demeaning and sexist themes used for the sole purpose of profit. The candid inclusion of the word “bitch” into our everyday vocabulary acknowledges the ugly truth behind these advertisements and serves to empower those who are targeted. Open ridicule of sexism of both the past and present can further the progression of women and feminism alike.
“Bitch Is New Black.” Perf. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Saturday Night Live, 7 Oct. 2014. Vimeo. Web. 06 May 2015.
Caplan, Paula J. “Premenstrual Mental Illness: The Truth about Sarafem.” The Network News. May 2001: 1,1,5+. ProQuest. Web. 4 May 2015.
Carpenter, Courtney and Aimee Edison. “Taking It All Off Again: The Portrayal of Women In Advertising Over The Past Forty Years.” Conference Papers -- International Communication Association (2005): 1-25. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 6 May 2015.
Gangopadhyay, Saswati. “Use of Women In Advertisements And The Issue of Social Responsibility.” Global Media Journal: Indian Edition (2011): 1-7. Communication & Mass Media Complete. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.
“I Bitch, Therefore I am.” aibris.com. Alibris, Inc. n.d. Web. 06 May 2015.
“I'm So Not a Bitch” Hipster Cards. Web. 20 Mar. 2015.Digital image.
Metzl, Jonathan M. “Selling Sanity through Gender.” Ms Fall 2003: 40-5. ProQuest. Web. 30 Apr. 2015
Sharpe, Katherine. “Bad Mothers and Single Women: A Look Back at Antidepressant Advertisements (PHOTOS).” The Huffington Post. 11 June 2012. Web. 06 May 2015.
Whitsett, Hilary. “Targeting Women: Direct to Consumer Advertising in Women’s Magazines.” Saint Mary's College, 13 Dec. 2012. Web. 11 May 2015.
“Zoloft: Power That Speaks Quietly.” American Journal of Psychiatry, April 1999, Page A1. Advertisement.
Serax advertisement. JAMA, 200.8 (1967): 206. Print.
Serax advertisement. JAMA, 200.8 (1967): 206. Print.
Tide Laundry Soap. Ladies' Home Journal Dec. 1949. Print.