When people say sex sells, most of the time what they really mean is that sexy women sell. For decades, advertisers have been finding different ways to feature women in ads in order to entice buyers. And, it would seem, the strategy works.
But the way women have been portrayed in advertising has changed over the decades, and changed the way society views women because of it.
Back then, marketers were just discovering the buyer’s inner life, and they decided the surest way to reach it was to attack the outer self. And, in speaking to women, they almost invariably used the same tool of persuasion: husbands. Either a woman will never find one, or she’s always one mistake away from losing one.
Advertisers targeted women because research showed they were responsible for 80 percent of household purchases. Marketers also deemed them easy marks. Advertisers preyed not only on their own projections but also on women’s very real economic insecurity. It is as though they read Cicely Hamilton’s 1909 book Marriage as a Trade and took it as a guidebook. The reliance of most women on a husband merely to get by was nothing more than a great marketing opportunity.
Lysol ads especially tended to emphasize divorce. They can’t quite spell out the product’s (dangerous) use as a douche, and they imagine buyers are likewise bedeviled by propriety. The women depicted are clueless about what they did wrong; husbands are afraid to say; mothers chide their daughters. Failure to heed the advertiser’s call is the fault of the victim.
Below are some old advertisements preyed on women’s need for marital security in order to sell stuff in the mid-20th century.