Through the technology they use, the partnerships they develop and the creative approach they take to telling new stories, advertisers have the unique ability to propel culture forward.
Efforts to portray women in a positive, empowering, multifaceted way are perhaps more visible than ever—like the industry-leading #SeeHer initiative from the Association of National Advertisers and the Female Quotient, which encourages all advertisers to use the Gender Equality Measure (GEM) to identify gender bias and create realistic portrayals of girls and women in advertising and media by asking four questions about their work: What is the overall opinion of the female presented? Is she portrayed respectfully? Is she depicted inappropriately? Is she seen as a positive role model for women and girls? Since GEM was launched in 2016, it’s become the go-to standard for advertisers to create unbiased messaging.
Of course, the work to shatter stereotypes started decades ago. For all the ads that perpetuated stereotypes about women—and there have been many—it’s worth noting those powerful moments of real progress along the way.
In honor of Women’s History Month, here are 10 landmark ads that helped to shift the narrative of the American woman.
1. Who Says It’s A Man’s World? – TWA (1950)
With the tagline “Who says ‘it’s a man’s world’?,” this ad called into focus the idea that women’s rights are human rights. A novel idea back in 1950! The image of women enjoying global, solo travel meant women could aspire not just to a life outside the home, but a life that was exotic and cultured.
2. Equal Pay. Equal Time. – Bulova Accutron (1972)
As the expression goes, “We all have the same number of hours in a day.” Well, in 1972, watch manufacturer Bulova Accutron took that age-old idea to the next level with their not so subtle ad focused on equal pay for women in the workplace. Launched at a time when the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) continued to gain national public attention, this ad features two hands clasped in unity—a man’s hand and a woman’s—in the name of equality.
3. More Installers Like Alana MacFarlane – AT&T (1972)
AT&T’s attempts at representation reached new heights (pun intended) when it featured female telephone installer Alana MacFarlane in its 1972 ad. Taking the 1950s stereotype of AT&T telephone operators and flipping it on its head, AT&T showed that when it comes to complex, physical work, women are up to the task.
4. Power Suit – Ralph Lauren (1980)
Ah, the power suit. The image of women empowerment from the early 1980s. I can practically hear Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” playing in the distance. This ad takes us back to a time when seeing women in power was a rarity -- and when anything seemed possible. The image is such a part of our pop culture even today that many don’t realize that it all started with a simple Ralph Lauren ad.
5. Like a Girl - Always (2014)
The “Like a Girl” ad by Always addresses the confidence crisis that exists when girls hit their pre-teens. The ad offered up the question, what if “like a girl” wasn’t an insult? What if, instead, it became a rallying cry, an empowerment message for young girls?
6. Imagine the Possibilities – Barbie (2015)
A seven-year-old professor? Veterinarian? Soccer coach? Business professional? Why not? This ad made the space for all young girls (and the adults in their lives) to re-envision how they define success.
7. Share the Load – P&G India (2016)
Get ready for the waterworks. This ad highlighted a father as he watches the chore imbalance that exists in his adult daughter’s home and wonders about the role he may have played in perpetuating the gender stereotypes that are now her day-to-day.
8. Stress Test: Dana – Secret (2016)
This emotional ad by Secret depicts a transgender woman named Dana as she works up the courage to leave her bathroom stall and face the women she hears on the other side of the door. By simply allowing the viewer to share Dana’s point of view, the scene encourages us to empathize with her mindset in this moment. And the tagline “no right way to be a woman” highlights the daily struggles that all women—but especially transgender women—go through to be their authentic selves in their day-to-day lives. The ad reminds us that it’s not always the big moments that require our courage. Sometimes, it’s the small moments that call us to draw on our inner strength the most.
9. The Race Is On – Western Union (2017)
Education has the power to change women’s lives, and moving money helps fuel this change. Western Union calls on all the young girls of the world to remember that the race is on” and that the opportunities for them to succeed can and should be limitless.
10. She Can Stem – Ad Council (2020)
This ad, which launched as part of the Ad Council’s She Can STEM campaign in August 2020, proclaims that STEM is fun! Whether girls are making your own makeup, building an exploding volcano or coding games, it encourages young girls to dare to STEM.
There is, of course, so much work still to be done—at our current rate of progress, The Female Quotient estimates that it will take 257 years to close the gender pay gap. Since these 10 ads are such great case studies in how to create inclusive and representative work that propels culture forward, my hope is that they might serve as a source of inspiration for the road ahead.