Gender Stereotypes and Cisnormativity in Ads

Enculturation is the process in which an individual learns about their culture. The enculturation process teaches a person what is right and wrong, their roles and expectations in society, and how they should view others. It is no surprise that commercials are a key component of the enculturation process that is enforced through the media. We are exposed to hundreds of advertisements every day through the radio, magazines, television, newspapers, billboards and even buses. We are surrounded by an almost constant stream of advertisements about all kinds of products from household cleaners, diet supplements, restaurants, and even medications. While seemingly innocent and obvious on the outside, many commercials carry a loaded message about what a person is supposed to be based on their gender. While gender norms and stereotypes are slowly being eradicated, you’d be hard pressed to find an example in advertisements. Women still sell cleaning products, the sexual exploitation of women is still being used to pander to male audiences, and the existence of transgender and other gender minorities (especially trans women) are being mocked and deconstructed.

According to Jib Fowles, there are 15 basic appeals to advertising. These appeals focus on basic psychological and physiological needs of people to sell a product (Fowles 542). Some of these appeals focus more on upholding gender stereotypes than others, such as the need for sex and the need to nurture. While the other 13 appeals play a role, these are the ones that often focus on outdated gender stereotypes to sell their pitch. The images conveyed in advertisements are far from harmless.

Sex sells. It’s a saying quoted day in and day out. A very true saying. Everywhere you look beautiful women are advertising products. Generally these women are white, blond, skinny and cisgendered. They are often wearing tight and flattering clothing, sometimes with a v-neck cut. These women are depicted as respectable, flawless, and sexy. They exude an undercurrent of sexual tension. So what are these women trying to sell? Anything from cars, diet pills, clothing, perfume, and sometimes even something as simple as a vacuum! Fowles proclaims that there is very little sex in advertising, saying that the “fascinating thing is not how much sex there is in advertising, but how little” (Fowles 543). Fowles is only counting unambiguous, or blatant, sex. He is not taking into account the subtle sex appeal that permeates a lot of advertising. Take example the Philip Morris ad from the 1950s (Writing and Reading 567). A beautiful woman, seen with an equally handsome man, getting dried off at the beach. Her bathing suit is one piece, though shows her cleavage, with the pack of cigarettes strategically placed there. Clearly this ad is marketed at men, whose eyes will most likely first wander to the woman’s cleavage and thus, notice the cigarettes (if they are heterosexual). Even the tag line of “Gently Does It” exudes an air of sex. This was an ad from the 1950s, over 50 years ago. Sex sells is an age old adage for sure.

Advertisements often portray women as thin and curvaceous. Most of these women are thinner than the average skinny woman. To be beautiful, to be the object of adoration, to be successful, you need to be thin. That is the message the media is saying to women. How much does this impact a woman’s actual self-image? Studies have shown that women who are randomly assigned to look at media depictions of women show a decline in self-image. Nearly half of college women are dissatisfied with their bodies and this dissatisfaction is not related to their actual body size. This dissatisfaction with their bodies increases the risk for eating disorders, low self-esteem, and depression (Aronson, Wilson, and Akert 205).

Another problem with advertisements and their portrayal of women is the roles they depict them in. Studies have shown that women are more likely to be portrayed in a dependent role than men. This study was done across several countries and this was found true for each country (Aronson, Wilson, and Akert 205). The message in advertising is that women are dependent with an innate need to nurture. They are expected to stay at home and take care of the family while their husband is the independent individual. The easiest way to see this stereotype in play is to look at cleaning products. In 1954 Jergens Lotion produced an ad for their hand lotion, this ad portrays a high class woman surrounded by dishes, displaying her hands. It describes Mrs. Dorain Mehle and her plight of dry hands from washing dishes. The caption under the image says, “a housewife, a mother, and a very lovely lady” (Writing and Reading  589). Before even getting into the description of the ad and product, the ad is already upholding gender stereotypes. It appeals the the nurturing aspect of advertising by calling this woman a housewife and a mother and thus, a dependent woman. In the description of the advertisement is continues to say that “Dorian’s husband is the best testimonial…even after years of married life, he still loves to hold her pretty hands!” (Writing and Reading 589). Beauty is important, so important that it is a key factor to why her husband still holds her hands. Her husband  is the independent of the family since Dorian hinges her life on his acceptance of her as a beautiful woman. This ad is clearly targeted at the heteronormative family, where the female is the care taker and home maker. Her value is held in her ability to be dependent and nurturing.

This ad is from 1954, you would think these ‘outdated’ gender stereotypes would be gone from advertising in 2012. However, if we look at modern day cleaning ads, they uphold the same stereotypes as portrayed in 1954. In this modern day Lysol ad, the only mention of the man in the house is the fact that he is the one who makes the mess, not the one who cleans it up. The ad implies that the wife, girlfriend, or woman of the house is the one whose job is to clean (Blog 17). In a Clorox ad, two women are depicted cleaning dishes, a mother and her daughter (Clorox Ad). There is no mention of the husband or of any other male figure. This mother and daughter time is spent passing on these gender roles and stereotypes. These ads continue to uphold these gender stereotypes that women are the stay at home cleaners. You never see ads where a man is the one cleaning and if you do, its about how inaccurate he is about it. Clearly, this is a woman’s job.

Advertising is extremely detrimental to the transgender identity, especially trans women. Transgender women are often the butt of jokes in commercials, shown as men in dresses, not truly women, or not anywhere as much of a female as a cisgender woman. Two recent advertisements that showcase this, the Paddy Power ad from the UK and the Libra tampon commercial from New Zealand. This shows that transgender women are not the butt of jokes for only commercials aimed at cisgender men, but cisgender women as well. In the Paddy Power ad, viewers are dared to “spot the stallions from the mares” (“BBC News”). The fundamental issue with this is that this simple statement completely deconstructs a trans woman’s identity as a woman. By calling them stallions, they are automatically turned from being a woman to a man in a dress. This ad further proves a problem by portraying many of these trans women as extremely masculine and non-passable. Masculine cis women and feminine trans women do not exist according to this ad. They even show a trans woman coming out of the men’s toilet which further pushes that these are just men in dresses. The Libra tampon commercial is a bit more subtle in its deliverance of cissexism (and even regular sexism). This ad takes place in a woman’s rest room between two women. One of the women is obviously not cisgender because she is sporting a 5 o’clock shadow, is rather masculine in build and stature. They procede to pull out feminine products from their purses with the cis women eventually pulling out a tampon and ‘winning’ (“Huffington Post”). This not only deconstructs a trans woman’s identity because she cannot menstruate, but also devalues cis women who cannot menstruate. According to this commercial, only ‘real’ women can have their periods.

Advertising has a long way to go if it wants to help avoid detrimental gender stereotypes and the deconstruction and devaluation of transgender identities, especially in the area of cleaning products, nurturing jobs, and sex. Retailers and advertisers need to look at ways to push product that appeals to all genders. Studies have shown that 42% of people would pay more for a product that makes cleaning faster (Leggatt). Men are beginning to pick up and do more of the household cleaning; 33% of men are now taking part in cleaning and 55% of these men feel accomplished cleaning (Leggatt). Advertisers need to tap into this uncharted territory of appealing to all genders. As for the issue surrounding transgender people in advertising, it is no lie that even depicting transgender people in ads is a big step. 20 years ago you would have thought people in the gender and sexuality minorities didn’t exist. Ads are beginning to explore appealing to those outside of the heteronormative life and are getting mixed reviews. Advertisers need to remember that transgender people are the genders they identify with. Trans women are not men is dresses, they are simply women. Transgender people and their identities are not to be the butt of jokes. As society continues to change, gender roles and stereotypes are beginning to be demolished. The advertising industry has a long way to go before it starts to reflect these progressions.

Works Cited (MLA)

“A Portfolio of Print Advertisements.” Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum. Behrens, Laurence, and Leonard J. Rosen. 11. New York: Longman, 2010. 301-03. Print.

Aronson, E., T. Wilson, and R. Akert. Social psychology. 7th. Upper Saddle Rive, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc., 2010. Print.

Blog 17: The Parable of the Ring Around the Collar. N.d. Graphic. Danielle’s English 1A BlogWeb. 15 Apr 2012. <;.

Clorox ad. N.d. Photograph. 1888 Mills, New York. Web. 15 Apr 2012.  <;.

Fowles, Jib. “Advertising’s Fifteen Basic Appeals.” Writing and Reading Across the Curriculum.   Behrens, Laurence, and Leonard J. Rosen. 11. New York: Longman, 2010. 301-03. Print.

Leggatt, Helen. “More Men Cleaning, Ads Need Revising.” BizReport. 14 July 2011: n. page. Web. 15Apr. 2012. <;.

“New Zealand’s Libra Tampon ‘Transphobic’ Commercial Yanked From Airwaves.” Huffington Post 03     January 2012, n. pag. Web. 15 Apr. 2012. <;.

“Paddy Pub Transgender TV Ad Suspended.” BBC News [Gloucestershire] 23 February 2012, n. pag. Web. 15 Apr. 2012. <;.


Author: Lucian Clark

Lucian Clark was born and raised in South New Jersey. Recently they published their first novel, a dark romance, titled Cemetery Drive. Their works have been featured across numerous platforms such as The Advocate and in anthologies like Werewolves Versus and Postcards From The Void. They've also been featured on several podcasts to talk about horror, activism, and their writing. With a passion for all things spooky, horrific, and queer, Lucian can often be found on social media talking about werewolves, rats, and My Chemical Romance. When not actively writing or reading, Lucian is also the curator of the queer horror website, GenderTerror, which features original art, stories, interview and more. They can also be found playing video games or with their pets (currently some rats and a cat). They are active in local and national social activism with a focus on LGBTQ+ rights and reproductive justice.

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