Credit: hans van den berg on Flickr, under Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).

(WOMENSENEWS)–By the early 1970s, there seemed to be a 15-year gap from what appeared in ads to what was going on in real life.

Ads that used terms like the "weaker sex" or "little women" offended feminists (and frankly, any forward-thinking woman) who rebuffed the idea of getting married, starting families and devoting themselves to homemaking–exclusive of pursuing an education and a career path. Ads that portrayed women as subordinate to men began to infuriate the "Mary Tyler Moore" and "That Girl" audience of the day. Feminists began to protest these ads as contemptuous for stereotyping women, portraying them as sex objects and co-opting the language of the women’s movement while hawking an underlying message that women were secondary to men.

One of the first organized protests was in 1969 in front of New York City’s Macy’s department store. It was in response to a Mattel ad in Life magazine that pitched its toy products using the following ad copy: "Little girls dream about being a ballerina or a young fashion model, while boys were born to build, learn and find science fun." Protesters claimed the ad implied mind-enriching toys were only suitable for boys, not girls.

And damn, if the protesters weren’t right! Women were simply not going to take it anymore. Sit-ins and confrontations over sexist ad campaigns erupted at Ladies’ Home Journal, Playboy and Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) on ads ranging from National Airlines "Fly me" campaign, Clairol’s "Does she . . . or doesn’t she?" and Geritol and Folgers for ads that blatantly devalued women. Feminists later began placing "This Ad Insults Women" stickers on billboards and posters.

A Defining Shift

A defining shift in advertising arrived via a 1973 perfume campaign for Charlie perfume by Revlon. The revolutionary ads displayed a pantsuited young woman engaging in traditional outside-the-home activities like walking the city streets or visiting a museum. That same year, Clairol ditched the "Does she . . . or doesn’t she" hair-dyeing tagline and portrayed women as artists, doctors and politicians, with the feminist-slanted tagline, "To know you’re the best." L’Oreal later hit the ground running with "Because I’m worth it."

This type of advertising produced a number of successful brands and sales soared noticeably among the companies using classy pro-women catchphrases and jingles that became so popular, many wormed their way into pop culture. In the late 1970s, ads for

Jean Nate fragrance featured a female jockey and the tagline "Take charge of your life."

Enjoli’s famous jingle of the same period, "I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan and never let you forget you’re a man," purported to take advertising to and for women by the balls, but nonetheless played to old stereotypes of gender roles. (Sure, it’s OK for women to be successful and capable, as long as she knows who really wears the pants in the relationship.)

By the mid-1980s, the message of female empowerment became the standard marketing ploy in hundreds of ad campaigns, something unimaginable just decades before. Not only had dozens of women entered the advertising field and begun their rise to top positions in the industry, but feminism was here to stay and feminists were uncompromising in calling out manufacturers and advertisers when their ads degraded women. By 2005, women would account for over half of those employed in advertising and related fields (52.2 percent), and incredibly, the women who had criticized advertising the loudest beginning in the 1970s were now at the helm of ad campaigns.

Jumping Into the Game

Even esoteric products like credit cards jumped into the game when American Express created the "’80s Interesting Lives" campaign, which strove to position the company’s ubiquitous square of plastic as the "it" credit card for young career women and men who lived dynamic and multifaceted lives. The ads showed yuppies, the term of the day, living spontaneously via the two-by-three-inch card, stuffing a large piece of expensive art they just purchased into the back of a convertible, or jumping aboard a plane for an unplanned trip to the Australian outback. Suddenly, women were at the helm of the credit decision: to buy or not to buy, and they held the power. The campaign was beyond successful, doubling the amount of women applying for the American Express card. By 1984, 27 percent of American women carried the blue card compared to 10 percent just a few years prior.

But the flipside of these ad campaigns, which were–by advertising standards–strongly feminist, was the creation of the superwoman complex. Suddenly, suit-wearing, briefcase-carrying, confident women who worked outside the home and raised well-mannered children, kept a spotless kitchen and pleased their man every night was the norm. If we women weren’t keeping up with career, kids, cooking and pleasing our husbands, well, we must be slackers, these campaigns inferred.

Women were being challenged to go big or go home, as the saying goes, and this didn’t even take into account the ongoing messaging in both ads and magazine content that we had to be beautiful and fit as well as hyperachieving. Who the hell had time to touch up their roots, let alone get to the gym, when we were expected to juggle so much? But while today’s ads have backed off this messaging significantly, we’re still faced with the ever-present pressure to do whatever it is we do–career woman, stay-at-home mom or independent spirit–looking beautiful, ageless and thin, much like the women who grace the covers of these magazines.

Excerpted from "Airbrushed Nation: The Lure and Loathing of Women’s Magazines" by Jennifer Nelson. Available from Seal Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2012.

Jennifer Nelson has been writing for women’s magazines for nearly 15 years. She’s written hundreds of articles on health, wellness, relationships, pop culture, pets and travel for practically every chick slick on the stands. Nelson teaches Stiletto Boot Camp, a course on women’s magazine writing, at She also speaks about and offers workshops on women’s magazine writing. She is a bona fide women’s glossy magazine junkie.

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