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Woman, as Defined by Corporate America

Advertisements are a powerful influence on society, whether we care to admit it or not. And furthermore, advertisements are a company’s interpretation of its customers’ lives, albeit with more enthusiasm and catchy jingles. This means that the commercials we see on TV and the billboards we see across Sunset Boulevard are often intended to mimic what that company thinks we, the general public, are- or if not that, what we want to be. This is why I get so angered when I see ads that treat women like cleaning robots or housewives that live to serve their incompetent husbands. But not all companies manage to push my feminist buttons. Some ads, and companies in particular, treat women like the multi-faceted people they are, either allowing them to drive fast cars or have high-level jobs. This is a short list of some of the commercials on TV stations today, and what message they are conveying to the commercial-watching public, for the empowered better or outdated and out-of-touch worse.

Yay!: Porsche’s version of a school bus.

While a Porsche commercial directed at soccer moms may seem slightly misdirected, I applaud their bold direction. First of all, almost no sports car commercials are directed at women at all, let alone mothers. The fact that Porsche has used their commercial to say a mother should be interested in their car, for motherly and presumably other reasons, is reason enough for me to smile. Women usually aren’t even allowed to appear in the driver’s seat of sports car commercials; they are almost always subjected to the sexy and submissive passenger seat. The fact that this commercial caters to a woman who wants to both drive fast and pick her kids up from school on time is something I would love to see more of in the car industry’s advertisements.

Yay!: ACT Mouthwash- a place where a mom can be a dentist.

Unfortunately, I could not find this commercial online, but I’m hoping you’ve seen it if you’ve been watching Food Network and HGTV like I have. I’ll give you the breakdown: a father comes into his home with his two children, and explains that his wife is a dentist, and she recommends ACT Mouthwash because she is a dentist. The kids look cute, the husband looks endearing, and in the end, the father says “So we use ACT Mouthwash, because she should know”.

This commercial is an example of how easy it is to move past sexist stereotypes. ACT Mouthwash didn’t do anything crazy in their ad, or even make a big scene. Nonetheless, the choice to make the woman the knowledgeable party in this instance is so enlightening. Of course a woman can be a dentist- too bad most advertisements don’t address that possibility at all. In fact, her credibility is bolstered by the fact that she is a mother as well. She cares for their dental check-ups, as well their happiness, because she is both a licensed dentist and a caring mom. And the kids seem to love her all the same for it.

I also like that the father is the one present in the commercial. It gives the suggestion that he is a stay-at-home dad, or at least a very involved father. We almost never see that in advertising today, and I think ACT Mouthwash made a great example of it. Almost no one would look twice at that “oddity”,  yet the ad is just as persuasive and compelling- more so, in my case- than if it had been the normal, outdated version with a stay-at-home housewife and her big-shot dentist husband.

Nay!: Bona Mop: your husband’s excuse to act like a 6-year old.

Now, this commercial is very similar to almost every other home cleaning commercial out there. Unfortunately, these unoriginal styles of commercials suggest that men are little more than children who should be treated as such, and for that reason, women should simply smile and clean up their messes. I don’t know who should be more angry, the women or the men! The idea that a woman is just all-too-pleased to spend her daylight hours cleaning up the house that her children and husband seem to constantly dirty up is ridiculous- I don’t know of a mother who allows her daughter to paint on the wood floors for a long enough time to paint a large flower, complete with leaves, and without so much as an angry look. This woman smiles, chuckles, and uses her fancy mop to sweep away the mess, along with her dignity.

And then there’s the husband. He spills his coffee in the first few seconds of the commercial, but there is no notion of him cleaning up his own mess or apologizing or thanking his dutiful wife for her swift mopping abilities. Even though I am not a man, I am offended at this. All men seem to do in cleaning commercials is make a mess. They revert back to clumsy toddlers, except with the smug charm of a B-list actor in a romantic comedy. All the men in my life are much more capable than this, even if they are not the neatest. I suspect the same is true for you.

My favorite part of this commercial is the ending, however. The mother looks lovingly at the ground, exceptionally clean, where her children continue to play with their father. The smooth finish of the wood floor is obvious- they are selling a product, after all. But on that perfect floor is the woman’s presumed husband with their children, painting and playing, as if they are all the same. The man is literally a child! I am not at all suggesting that fathers should not play with their children, but the point of this commercial seems to be that there is literally no difference between the two. The woman might as well be a single mother, because all her hubby is doing is making a mess and enjoying the clean and shiny reward.

When you take the time to think about what the commercials we watch every day are trying to convey, it can be startling. What always freaks me out the most is knowing that some advertising execs sat in meetings and had to approve every decision made in a nationally televised commercial. That means, for every doting-but-dumb mother we see in a cleaning product’s ad, there were lots of people who said “Great idea! Let’s make sure the husband is really clumsy!”. But when I see a noticeable change in ads that reflect the new world we are living in, it makes me proud to know that there are big-name companies that really are trying to expand their clientele to all people, regardless of their gender.

Of course, this is not just a matter of gender. The politics of gendered advertising takes its toll on queer customers as well. It’s no shock that just as we rarely see a car commercial geared at women, we basically never see an obviously gay person or gay couple as the focus of a nationally-running commercial. Gender stereotypes do the same things that gay stereotypes do: they pretend an entire group of people is the same, with only one goal or one type. Just as it’s hurtful and inaccurate to think that all gay men are effeminate, loud, and promiscuous, it’s angering to see women- and gays, for that matter- treated in this same manner during our TV commercial breaks. Just as I love seeing women in powerful roles in commercials, I would love to see a butch lesbian or flashy gay man repping a brand, or a gay couple vacationing on a fancy cruise line. Stereotypes in commercials are a hindrance to our fight for equal rights, as women and as members of the queer community.

I know this is just a short list of recent commercials, and there are tons more! Post your own examples of ads that make you proud, and ads that leave you in disgust.

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