Critical Thinking Media Competence

Power and responsibility of companies for their advertisement


In current times, many people argue that we live in times of gender equality, that men and women are treated equally more or less in every part of society. But what does advertisements and commercials show us about the roles of men and women today? Is “sex sells” a good reason to do sexist advertisements?

In our essay we want to give a short overview on sexism in advertisements and show that banning sexism out of advertisements could also be a positive strategy for companies and discuss if rather companies should voluntarily follow an anti-sexism-codex or if it should be regulated by the state.


If one compares the television-commercials, from the middle of the 20th century with current ones, one might recognize a development towards gender-equality. An advertisement from Pepsi of the year 1957 shows that sexism is not a new problem (Pepsi:1957). Quite the opposite, the promotion clip even shows that the sexist ideas of the advertisements agencies for the role of a typical women were very harsh, especially from a present-day perspective. However, even in current times, where awareness to that topic is already created, one still recognize sexist tendencies in commercials. They are more subtle but different kinds of sexism are used there. Recently, in advertisements for detergent (Ariel: 2013, Spee: 2014), one can only see female actors, who do so called “typical housewives-work”. This abuse of stereotypes and hyperpolarisation of traditional gender roles, to address their advertisement to a target group, has influential consequences. Companies use sexistic values as an attention getter and justify it with higher profits, as seen on the TV-commercial of Sodastream (Sodastream: 2014). They communicate values by means of advertising, whether they want or not. However, the consequence of this subtle spreading of stereotypes are that such gender roles could be seen as normal values of our society. Consumers of commercials watch these contents and sexist allusions again and again. If one believes the proverb semper aliquid haeret than this repetition of stereotypes will be seen as normal and people start to believe that it is quite ok and accepted to think and to act like those actors in advertisements. This conformity creates social pressure upon the individual, which eventually lead to a trend and against gender-equality, or at least to a slower development.

The sexist allusions, the use, reproduction of existing and also invention of new stereotypes hinders the change in people´s mind-set towards gender-equality. If people, especially children, who are generally more susceptible for indoctrination, think that those kinds of gender roles, presented in commercials, are a representation of actual society, they might think and act according to those values. So, if one thinks that a (faster) development towards gender-equality is the way to go for and if one accept that commercials indeed prevent society from this development, then one has to care about a higher sensibility for those contents in advertisement.


Thus, the media and advertisements play an important role for society. They create and reproduce role images, especially for women and men and their relationships. Companies and advertisements agencies know about this and make use of it. Profit maximization with the item “sex sells” is common for many companies.  But there is something beside profit maximization, the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR). If companies know that they change and create norms and values for society, they know about their responsibility for society, too. In times of Global Warming and a greater awareness for gender inequality in society, companies can use their better image through a good CSR. The brands “The Bodyshop” or “Dove”, for example, have advertisements that are designed for women, to encourage a positive picture of their bodies or personalities (Dove:2013; The Bodyshop:2013). Dove is using “all shapes of bodies” for their TV-commercials and has  success with this strategy, although it is part of the Unilever group, which is well known for its sexist commercials under the brand “Axe”. So the positive image of companies due to advertisement that is particularly anti-sexist can be an useful image and increase the companies profit. Therefore, an idea is to create a voluntary anti-sexism-codex, based on the model of the German press codex. This codex could even create a positive image for the companies or as anti-sexistic marked products, as the fair-trade seal, for instance. Companies could show that they take their responsibility seriously on a voluntary basis.

Another idea is to regulate sexism by the government, as the district parliament of the Berlin district Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg drafts a law against public sexist advertisements in a part of the city. A regulation by the state could protect minors from a wrong picture of sexuality and gender roles, as the law for the protection of children and youth already does. It is for sure that not every advertisement is good for the society and public. And operators, as the organizers from the Super Bowl, already ban commercials that are too sexist during the game (banned Super Bowl commercials).


To sum up this essay, one can say that companies indeed have an impact on the citizen’s mind-set. By means of TV-commercials they can influence, and actually they do influence, what people watch as normal, accepted and wanted. So, with producing sexist advertisements they at least slow down the development towards gender-equality in the people´s head. Furthermore, companies ought to take responsibility for their power. This is consistent with their economic point of view of CSR. Indeed, a higher sensibility of companies and a change of their subtle delivered values in commercials could be beneficial for their aim of profit-maximization. It might work better than “sex sells” and therefore is also in the company’s interest to do that voluntarily.