Ads send out more than the clients’ message.

As creatives we are trained to take a problem and solve it using advertising tools and techniques. Messages are designed to sell a product or service, and we do not necessarily consider the consequences that a branded message has on society. We focus on an ad’s creation, its cumulative effect, and rarely pay attention to how advertising reflects what is considered ‘normal’ within society.

The following examples are ads created during the ‘golden age of advertising’ by the Madmen working on Madison Avenue in the 1960’s. The advertising messages created for American brands, by transnational advertising agencies based in New York, reflect a society that permitted violence towards women, white superiority, and stereotypes of female inadequacies, all presented through a patronizing male point of view.

Doyle Dane Bernbach’s (DDB) long running advertising campaign for Volkswagen launched a German car in post-war America. One magazine ad used a typical 1960’s male condescension where “women are soft and gentle but they hit things” with the car, to pitch car parts as “easy to replace… and cheap”. (1)

In an ad for Kenwood mixers, the headline stated, “The chef does everything but cook — that’s what wives are for!” (2) This message clearly re-enforced the perception that a woman’s place is in the kitchen. A campaign for Leggs brand men’s pants went further, portraying a woman as a trophy being stepped on by a man who stated “it’s nice to have a girl around the house.” (3)

American society saw these advertising messages as cultural reflections of the times, and the creatives who came up with the ads had no reservations with showing women as inferior to men.

Ads for household brands in the early 20th century also used perceived racial differences to emphasis a product’s benefit: a little white girl asks a black child “Why doesn’t your mama wash you with fairy soap?”. The body language of the two children reflects the awkwardness of the conversation while emphasizing the white child’s superior role in the encounter. (4)

Consumers saw these branded advertising messages and accepted them as reflections of contemporary society, just as slavery was at one time accepted as “normal”. In these more enlightened times, we now know that those norms are wrong and deeply insulting.

Creatives and clients need to question more than the creative idea when evaluating branded advertising; they need to look at the symbols used in the message and ask: does the ad demean a person or group to make a brand appear superior?” If the answer is yes, then they need to go back to the drawing board and start again.

So far we have looked at ads from the 20th century now let us observe current advertising communication from around the world. So how are we doing now?. Surely we have moved on? Let’s look at some examples. How might the following branded messages be interpreted looking back from the future?

A controversial 2013 American trans-media “anti-rape” campaign seemed to blame women for getting raped, instead of the men who violated them. It showed a woman in a bathroom stall with sexy underwear down around her legs — and the headline “she couldn’t say no”. This ad blamed the victim for the rape suggesting that because she drank, the woman provoked the assault.

The ad targets the “violated as opposed of to the violator” by suggesting the falsehood that if a woman drinks, then she is “asking for it”. (5) Again, creatives and clients need to consider all angles and interpretations of the advertising message when exposing it to a larger public and realize how more than just the brand message is coming across.

Numerous McDonald’s TV ads from various agencies around the world have used cultural and racial stereotypes to sell themed hamburgers. The agency for McDonalds Germany fell back on a racial stereotype of reflecting the Mexican as a mustachioed male wearing a sombrero and poncho to sell a TexMex themed burger.(6) When a Mexican burger was released in Australia in 2010, the same cartoon stereotype of a mustached male wearing a sombrero was appropriated. (7) This conventional image was also used in advertising created in London for the UK release of a Mexican hamburger. (8) On a simplistic level this characterization may appear funny to Australians, the British and Germans, however, one must question whether it would it be acceptable to use Jewish or African American stereotypes. Mexicans travelling the world do not appreciate being demeaned by these images. Apart from Mariachis, the only people seen wearing sombreros are the “gringo” tourists at the Mexican airports.

This is not to say that Mexico is a country free from controversy in advertising. In a long-running image campaign for a national, family-owned department store, ‘insights’ that reinforced racist and classist attitudes were appropriated to sell luxury goods. Billboards placed in major urban centers presented Caucasian females wearing designer gowns. What is not shown is what caused the controversy. Mexico’s population is made up of 15% indigenous peoples, 80 % are mixed European and indigenous blood called mestizo, with the residual 5% being Caucasian. Looking at the Palacio de Hiero advertising, a question arises: why is 95% of the population not reflected in the advertising? (9) Presumably, the majority of consumers would want to see themselves reflected in ads. European, Canadian and US advertising certainly use models that reflect the majority of their peoples, so why not Mexico? As creatives we need to realize what we do not put in an advertising message can have as much power as what we do put in.

In a 2013 General Motors (GM) campaign, racial stereotypes were used in a commercial that was aired globally on TV and the Internet. A 1938 song, “Oriental Swing” that featured the lyrics “now, in the land of Fu Manchu, the girls all now do the Suzie-Q… Ching, ching, chop-suey, swing some more!” The ad also made fun of how geisha girls can’t say “r” and say “Amerlicans” instead of “Americans.”. (10) The ad was quickly taken down after an outcry in the press. The client and agency responded with the usual bland statement of “we are sorry” and “will revise our approval process.”

Also in 2013, the well-respected social commentator Dr. Boyce Watkins wrote “Mountain Dew Releases Arguably the Most Racist Commercial in History”.(11) In his blog, Watkins explained how the soft drink manufacturer used racist stereotypes in a TV commercial where the “suspects” are all black, and the “good guys” are mostly white.

In this Internet connected, multicultural world, we should think twice before using a racial stereotype to sell a brand. We should recognize that all consumers arethe whole world has the potential to see ly able to view any digital communication. As creators of advertising, we need to realize that when we create messages we are also re-enforcing standards and attitudes that we (and society) perceive to be correct. Looking back at the early 21st century from the future it would appear that advertisers repeatedly used racial and gender stereotypes to position brands.

Stereotypes of female body shape in beauty magazines and advertising, have recently come under attack in the mass media. However, women are not the only ones affected by unrealistic body images, presented by the communication industry; teenaged males also experience body dissatisfaction. A documentary released in 2014 called “The mask you live in” questions men’s unobtainable roles and expectations in society. These views were re-enforced through advertising messaging distributed through the mass media. Since the 1980’s there has been an increase o in the use off overly muscular men in used in advertising, from Calvin Klein’s 80’s billboards (12) to the current posters for of Abercrombie and Fitch.(13) This imagery has a negative effect on the self-esteem of young males who obsessively focus on trying to obtain large muscles and six packs. This thought disorder has been called “Bigorexia”.

Advertising would also have us believe that the stereotype of a “real man” is defined by the beer or whisky he drinks. Just examine the advertising messages targeting men during sports events: men cannot cry; don’t do house work; can’t touch each other; have large muscles and& six-packs; and stare sexually at women. These ads make it appear that there is only one way to be a man, to fit into western society. A future retrospective look at advertising from the early 21st century might suggests that if you do not match the implied codes of masculinity shown in advertising, then you aren’t really a man.

Advertising broadcast in any media, communicates more than just the client’s strategy. It also sends out covert messages about societies norms: class structure; race; politics; sexual attitudes; what is permitted and what isn’t. This is especially true when the same stereotype is repeated in many different branded messages. There may be a hilarious T.V. commercial, made funnier by using racial stereotypes but the ad functions by abusing somebody. As makers of advertising communication we should exercise social responsibility. We need to realize that, when creating messages, we also reinforce standards and attitudes that we (and contemporary society) perceive to be correct. In the future, some of these messages will be judged as demeaning or simply wrong.

I am not saying that using stereotypes or featuring insights is wrong, but as generators of advertising messages, we need to be aware of the power that our ‘cumulative’ messages have; reinforcing negative stereotypes and perceived social norms. All Mexicans do not wear sombreros, men can cry, and women do not asked to be raped.

Advertising messaging can broadcast a positive, branded communication, that can reverse negative, and gender stereotypes. In a well-known campaign, the ideal ‘female body’ as traditionally presented in advertising was effectively challenged by Dove. (14) Ogilvy’s real beauty movement challenged the beauty and fashion marketers on the way they portrayed women with unrealistic stereotypes. In part, due to this effort, the female target market is now aware of retouched ads. “As soon as they see one, major luxury brands are publicly challenged for retouching famous actresses beyond recognition in their advertising, and 17-year-old girls are demanding that the glossy magazines they read feature more real girls in their pages. Dove’s campaign worked.”

This ground breaking movement is an example of how a brand can be socially aware, and broadcast a message that confronts media generated stereotypes. The global, multimedia communication had the power to raise awareness, and changed the way women see themselves, as well as meeting client sales expectations.

So fellow creatives, let’s apply our talent & knowledge to move advertising forward, and remember: Ads in any medium send out more than just the client’s message.


1. Agency. DDB. Headline: Sooner or later, your wife will drive home one of the best reasons for owning a Volkswagen. Year: 1960’s. (accessed on June 5 2015)

2. Kenwood. Headline: The chef does everything but cook- that’s what wives are for!. Year: 1960’s. (accessed on June 5 2015)

3. Leggs. Headline: It’s nice to have a girl around the house. Year: 1960’s. (accessed on June 5 2015)

4. Fairy soap. Client: Palmolive. Headline: “Why doesn’t your mama wash you with Fairy soap?”. Year: late 19th or early 20th century. (accessed on June 5 2015)

5. Rape. Headline: She couldn’t say no. Year: 2013.

(accessed on June 5 2015)

6. McDonald’s Germany. Agency: Leo Burnett. Year: 2013 . (accessed on May 11 2014).

7. McDonald’s Australia. Agency: Leo Burnett. Year: 2010 .

(accessed on June 5 2014) .

8. McDonald’s U.K. Agency: Leo Burnett. Year: 2012 .

(accessed on June 5 2015).

9. Palacio. Agency:TBWA Teran. Year: 2001. (accessed on June 5 2015)

10. General.Motors. Year: 2013 . Client: Chevy traxx. (accessed on June 5 2015)

11. Mountain Dew. Year: 2013. Client: PepsiCo. (accessed on May 11 2015).

12. Calvin. Agency: In house. Year:1982. Photographer: Bruce Weber. (accessed on June 5 2015).

13. Abercrombie. Photographer: Bruce Weber. (accessed on May 11 2015).

14. Dove. Agency: Ogilvy Toronto. Year: 2006. Client: Unilever.

Case study video:

(accessed on June 5 2015).

Case study report: The Dove AdMakeover: Unlocking the Social Power of the Dove Brand. Jay Chiat Strategic Excellence Awards Issue: Gold, 2012 Case study

The above text was taken from the new Creative Social book, Hacker, Maker, Teacher, Thief: Advertising’s Next Generation.

It features chapters from 35 leading creative directors and business owners. Some of the topics we cover are; what does the industry need to do today (not tomorrow) to stay valuable and relevant? Is digital collaboration the death of idea ownership? And should we make things people want rather than make people want things?

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