The Sudsy Sexist World of TV Ads

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By Lynne Bronstein

What year is this? 2011? Was it only back in 1963 that Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique? If you look at television (or movies or magazines) you would never know that all this time has passed. It’s the 1950s except for the technology.

To wit: here’s a TV ad for a cable service. This is a major communications company and all of us probably pay into their profits somehow. The ad shows two young pretty females (one Caucasian, one Asian-American, just to demonstrate cultural diversity) having trouble with their washing machine. It is foaming over. One woman screams to her friend about ways they can try to fix it but the other one doesn’t know where anything is on the washing machine. First female then uses her high-speed Internet connection to call Daddy. Daddy appears and suggests that the twosome try turning the washing machine off. Voila! It works. “I’ll call a plumber,” says all-knowing Daddy.

In 2011, TV advertising copywriters believe that only women do the washing. But that’s not the whole point. In 2011, TV ad writers-and the companies they work for-think that women are also inept with all kinds of machinery and only a MAN can give them the advice they need, even if that advice is as simple as turning the danged thing off!

The most amazing thing is that these people think they can sell me their product by insulting me, a woman. Hell, they don’t just think so. They’ve tested these commercials on focus groups. This is what works, they tell us. This is what women want and that is what men want. Everything that is sold to us is marketed in pink or blue, often with a soupcon of gender-biased humor. The slightest deviation might cause a dip in sales.

All household products are sold only to women. Even though single men and men who live with other men and men who are willing to help their wives or girlfriends with the housework are doing that housework, it is the women who worry that their kids are getting enough fiber in their diets (from “whole grain” products that contain a lot of high fructose corn syrup). It is the women who scrub their kitchen counters and their shower stall walls. Men sometimes appear to tell women how to clean off the mildew. Props here to CLR Household Cleaner, the only household product that has a commercial in which a man is seen doing house cleaning on a weekend (he received the “Honey Do” list from his wife but at least it proves that men sometimes do this work).

But it’s the ads that have nothing to do with the housework that are really puzzling. Mucinex is a cold remedy. Would you believe that ads for Mucinex show drops of animated personified mucous and even the Mucous People conform to gender roles? Mrs. Mucous vacuums the carpet while Mr. Mucous sits reading the newspaper and praising his wife for her housewifely expertise.

In another cable-communications ad, a family has “peace” because everyone has their own TV that they can watch in a separate room and everyone has separate cable and HD access. Or something like that. At this point I would not be surprised if they all had their own little holodeck rooms and transporters. But at the dinner table, the family “peace” is indicated, among other things, by the father and daughter complimenting the mother on her roast. “It’s not too well-done?” she asks. “It’s a job well-done,” says the father.

Of course weight-loss products are all aimed at women. Again, reluctant kudos to Yoplait for an ad featuring a man who is eating Yoplait to lose weight (again due to the example of his wife-and it’s because of the delicious flavors rather than from his vanity). Too bad Yoplait is also full of high-fructose corn syrup. I checked the ingredients.

What can be done about this? You can boycott the products but it is necessary to inform the sponsors of the reason why you are not buying their products. Write or email them and tell them that they are selling you old-fashioned images of the genders and you want to see alternatives-including same sex couples and same-sex headed families, couples who share housework, men who are also concerned about health and physical appearance, and women who want to be healthy and look good in order to give a presentation at a business conference. Note the irony of all the futuristic gadgets in commercials where the people are living in the Stone Age of feminist consciousness. While you’re at it, mention the hypocrisy of using high fructose corn syrup in low-calorie foods.

And I don’t really want any of the Mucous People in my nose anyway but Mucinex could evict them and show healthy hippie-commune micro-organisms that are supposed to be in your nose. Okay, this is getting a bit picky, excuse the pun.

I just want to see a different paradigm. After all these years and with current feminist activists so busy trying to save choice that they haven’t much time to move forward on other issues, those of us who have worked and dreamed for 50 years to see gender equity, don’t want it to see it go down the drain in a flood of sex-stereotyped suds. We want to feel that ours is a job well-done.

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