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Mad Men, Mad Women  by Joy Parks
Mad Men, Mad Women

Discussions about women and advertising have been reignited thanks to the level of unapologetic sexism portrayed in the award-winning drama Mad Men, a television series about a 1960s advertising agency.

But who really was responsible for creating those damaging gender stereotypes in advertising?
 

It’s easy to blame it on the mad men. The first season of
the hit AMC TV series received 16 Emmy nominations and
was the first basic-cable show to win the coveted award for
best drama—plus, it won five others. A period piece
depicting the dark side of the lives of senior executives in a
New York advertising agency in 1960, Mad Men has inspired
a retro trend in designer menswear and a fascination with
Lucky Strikes and cocktails. It has also unleashed much
discussion and debate—online and off—about the show’s
depiction of the unmitigated sexism in the 1960s workplace.

As TV critic and blogger Aaron Barnhart characterized it, it
speaks to a time when “men were men and women were their
secretaries.”
 

While there are plenty of complex female characters on
the show, the men dominate with their infidelity, overt
double standards and unchecked sexual harassment. In
addition, the creative team at the fictional Sterling Cooper
agency spend much time debating “what women want” and
how to sell it them, unleashing a level of misogyny that has
pulled scabs off old wounds regarding how women have been
portrayed in mainstream advertising.
 

Feminism—for all of these reasons, and then some—has
had a long-standing feud with the advertising industry.
While gallons of ink has been spilled on the subject of
gender stereotypes in advertising, it was Betty Friedan who
fired the first shot, placing much of the blame for women’s
unhappiness on America’s post-war consumer society, and
especially on advertisers’ exploitation of women.
 

“It is their millions which blanket the land with persuasive
images, flattering the American housewife, diverting her
guilt and disguising her growing emptiness. They have done
this so successfully, employing the techniques and concepts
of modern social science, and transposing them into those
deceptively simple, clever, outrageous ads and commercials,
that an observer of the American scene today accepts as fact
that the great majority of American women have no
ambition other than to be housewives. If they are not
responsible for sending women home, they are surely
responsible for keeping them there.”
 

But were all the ad men really men?
 

No, says Juliann Sivulka! In her brand new book, Ad
Women: How They Impact What We Need, Want and Buy
(Prometheus), she reveals that the ad men behind much of
the advertising feminists labelled as sexist and damaging
were often women.
 

Sivulka takes an in-depth and quite fascinating look at the
history of American advertising, from the late 19th century
to just a few years ago, linking evolutions in the industry to
major societal upheavals in 1880, the 1920s and the 1970s.
She uncovers how and why the advertising and marketing
communications industry went from a handful of women
employees to one in which women far outnumber men.
 

The trend towards female employees was in direct relation
to a new understanding of the marketplace. As women began
to be viewed consumers, originally the keepers of the
household money and later of their own income, ad agencies
and their clients recognized the value of employing women
who would, it was believed, better know what would
motivate a woman to buy something and, with this insider
knowledge, be able to create effective advertising.
In the early 20th century, countless women received a
paycheque and a certain amount of career fulfillment
through their work in ad agencies—as writers, mainly, but
also as media buyers, art directors and home economists who
advised manufacturers on new household devices.
 

One of the most influential of these women was Helen
Lansdowne Resor, the daughter of a divorced single mother
and the very first copywriter hired at J.Walter Thompson, an
agency still regarded as an international expert in genderrelated
marketing. Resor developed an emotional hard-sell
technique that spoke to the consumer’s needs rather than the
product’s features—a revolutionary approach at that time.
She wrote in a friendly, advice-driven style and made use of
psychology, copy-testing and sampling—elements new to an
industry still in its infancy.
 

Resor also built the women’s editorial department to teach
other women employees how to create effective advertising
for women. Through this group, the J. Walter Thompson
agency developed the careers of more women than any other
early agency. It hired women for the very quality they were
expected to subjugate in order to succeed in most other
fields—their outsider perspective as women.
 

The women who were part of the women’s editorial
department viewed their work as a feminist activity. Outside
of work, they belonged to suffragette leagues, the National
Women’s party—an early feminist organization founded in
1917 that fought for the passage of a constitutional
amendment ensuring women’s suffrage—and the League of
Women Voters; they published articles, ran magazines and
spoke on feminist issues or other related causes. While
doing so, they may have led lives that were very different
than the housewives they were selling to. They sincerely
believed they were helping to make women’s lives easier, a
belief shared by the women who joined other agencies modelled on J. Walter Thompson’s success and who
participated in creating the advertising that later feminists
would criticize so vehemently.
 

While the advertising industry in Canada has always been
much smaller, Canadians have had their own ad women who
went on to contribute to progressive causes. In 1890,
journalist Kathleen Blake “Kit” Coleman, along with the
editors of the Daily Mail and a local merchant, ran a contest
to discover the best way to advertise to women. Coleman‘s
famous weekly newspaper column in the Mail and Empire
featured everything from advice for the lovelorn to her
observations on world affairs. She also became the country’s
first woman war correspondent, reporting on the Franco-
American war from Cuba in 1898.
 

Interestingly, when Chatelaine initially hired Doris
Anderson in 1951, it was for a marketing position. The
former Eaton’s copywriter, an ad woman who predates the
Mad Men milieu, would eventually head Canada’s most
important women’s magazine, leading its evolution from
service journalism into a magazine that dealt with public
affairs including birth control, abortion and other women’s
equality issues.
 

Did They or Didn’t They?
Despite what Mad Men would have you believe, in the late
1950s and early 1960s several of the most powerful people in
the New York advertising world were women—three of the
better known being Mary Wells Lawrence, Shirley Polykoff
and Jane Trahey. Wells’ agency, Wells, Rich & Greene, was
responsible, in 1971, for the justifiably loathed I’m Cheryl,
Fly Me ads for the now defunct National Airlines, a
campaign often touted as a classic example of sexism in
advertising. Polykoff, working for Foote, Cone and Belding,
created the long-running "Does She or Doesn’t She" hair
colour ads for Clairol. While they now seem dated,
condescending and ageist, originally they were meant to
encourage women’s self-expression.
 

Of the three, only Trahey demonstrated any feminist
sensibility. The owner of Trahey and Co, she rose from a
small Chicago in-house agency to eventually become chief of
copy at Niemen Marcus in Dallas, then returned to New
York to open her own shop. In addition to award-winning ad
copy, several books and plays, including the 1962 novel The
Trouble With Angels, which became a major motion picture,
she also penned Jane Trahey on Women and Power in 1978.
While it, too, seems dated now—since competing with men
is considered passé by current feminist standards—this was
practical feminism, a how-to book that used humour and
insider grit to help women navigate the sexism of the
business world. As she wrote in the introduction: “I don’t
think there’s any point in hashing over the sociological,
economic, psychological reasons why women don’t have any
more power in the world than they do. We’ve been told a
hundred times what’s keeping us down. What we need are
ways to change the situation.”
 

The New Women’s Market
While it may be hard to believe, there remain legions of
researchers today concerned with the still-elusive women’s
market. According to Andrea Gardner, author of The 30-
Second Seduction, the mother market alone has five
behavioural groups and marketing experts Carol Osborne
and Mary Brown claim there are three different kinds of
women baby boomers. Women are still viewed as the
primary consumer, and women baby boomers in particular
are unique because they are the first generation to have their
own incomes in significant numbers. Like previous
generations of women, they control household spending, but
also have significant personal money. According to experts,
women directly or indirectly initiate or influence 80 percent
of all consumer spending.
 

In business, money talks. Advertisers want a financial
return on their investment, which means the sheer number
of baby boomer women and their significant consumer clout
should have the power to force changes in how marketing
portrays them. But that isn’t happening.
 

Fewer Women Today
With all this information on who women are, what they
want and what they have to spend, one would expect
advertising directed at them to be less sexist, more diverse
and less youth-oriented. But the majority of it isn’t. That’s because—unlike the earlier part of the past century, when
agencies recognized the usefulness of having women craft
sales messages for women—most of the decision-makers
and creative people in agencies today are men in their 20s
and early 30s. In fact, it’s getting harder to find women in
upper creative positions.
 

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity committee in
2003 noted that women far outnumber men in agencies, at
65.8 percent of jobs. But their status recedes with rank.
Women hold 76.7 of clerical positions, 58.2 percent of all
professional positions and 47 percent of upper management
positions. But on the creative side, where messaging
decisions get made, they don’t even come close to the early
1920s numbers, or even those of the 1960s Mad Men era. Of
Adweek’s 33 top agencies, only four have women as their
senior creative director.
 

In November 2007, the Globe and Mail, in an interview
with Lorraine Tao and Elspeth Lynn, founding partners of
the ad agency Zig, referred to their firm as having a “fun,
pop-feminist sensibility.” The women had been creative
partners at other agencies and their own small Canadian
shop was boasting like clients Molson, Ikea, Best Buy,Virgin
Mobile and Unilever.


Notably, the duo produced a commercial for Kellogg’s
Special K cereal that depicted average men deriding aspects
of their bodies using classic female scripts. It delivered a
strong message about advertising and women’s insecurities
about body image.
 

Buying into a better future
There have been a few ad campaigns in recent years to get it
right. Dove’s Real Beauty campaign, shot by legendary
photographer Annie Leibovitz, featured real women with
real rolls, cellulite and wrinkles. The Real Beauty campaign,
created by Ogilvy & Mather, also included the YouTube ad
Evolution, which used time-lapse photography to
demonstrate how ordinary women are made to look perfectly
fake for ads. The campaign also saw the company set up a
Self-esteem Fund to support programs designed to
encourage young girls to develop a healthy body image.
In 2006, the company commissioned a report in nine
countries, including Canada, asking nearly 1,500 mature
women what was wrong with the advertising directed to
them. According to Sharon MacLeod, brand building
director for Dove, “75 percent of women over 50 report that
anti-aging ads often portray unrealistic images of women
over 50.Women are regularly confronted with messages that
they should minimize, reduce, eliminate or defy the natural
signs of aging.”
 

Ironically, the body-image-positive Dove ads were at the
centre of a boycott by the American Family Association for
their over-sexualization of women. Leave it to the radical
right to turn women’s words against them.
 

Still, Unilever received far more kudos than criticism for
Dove’s marketing. But will the trend continue? According to
media and gender issues expert Jean Kilbourne, author of
Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We
Think and Feel and producer of the award-winning
documentary Killing Us Softly, “It all depends on how much
soap the ads sell.”
 

What If Women Mattered?
What will it take to change how advertisers often portray
women? One positive sign is that consumers are
complaining. According to the Advertising Standards
Council’s 2007 annual report, depicting women in a
derogatory manner was one of four prime issues cited in the
1,445 complaints the council received, a 40 percent increase
compared to 2006. The self-regulating council found that
5.7 percent of the ads cited in 2007 complaints contravened
the Canadian Code of Advertising Standards. Those
advertisers were asked to amend or withdraw their
advertisements.
 

Women must continue to demand more realistic, more
intelligent messages, or simply refuse to buy products by
advertisers who create messages that offend them. As
Andrea Gardner, author of The 30-Second Seduction, writes:
“In the end, the ones who have the power to create that shift
are today’s powerful female consumers, the ones who buy
from companies that treasure them.” 
This article first appeared in Herizons Winter 2009 issue.

Joy Parks made her living as an advertising copywriter for nearly 20 years.