A Brief Visual Tour of Womanly Scripts in Advertising (U.S.)

Join LDY-500 2000 years in the future as she guides you through the “past” of American society with regards to gender roles as promoted through product advertisements.


robot guide

*typical female robotic voice* Hello, and thank you for attending the gallery on today’s date April 10, 4000. I am LDY-500, and I will be your guide today as we move through an archive of advertisements that show the primitive and mundane lives of ancient American women in the 20th and 21st century.


Beginning in the early 20th century, technological advancements such as electric/gas stove-ovens, dishwashers, and chemically-complex cleaners made their way into middle-class American homes. Advertisements for these products were laden with messages that told couples what women what they wanted, what they were capable of and how they should behave. Take this Kenmore stove ad from the 1950’s for example. The wife is worried about being able to cook without heavy cleaning and preserving her fingernails. Her husband is simply worried about quality and efficiency. They realize that this particular stove suits both of their needs, and it is presumed that the husband buys his wife the stove so that she can continue her domestic tasks with in-tact nails. Lucky her.


Another stove ad, this Brown product introduced in the 1960’s also supposedly “saves” women from the intensive labor that is stove and oven cleaning. In this ad, we also see the beginnings of color coded marketing. The pink and purple hues used here denote that the product is intended to be used and appreciated by a woman, regardless of the gender of the person actually purchasing the stove. Pink and purple would continue to dominate “feminine” products for decades.

like a mother

Method, an “eco-friendly” producer of household cleaners founded at the turn of the 21st century, created many advertisements that perpetuated the femininity of domestic life. This general ad for their cleaning products page from the year 2017 is a perfect example of how pink and purple were still being used to catch the womanly eye over 60 years after the inception of the marketing tactic. The colors are buttressed by the message that if anyone wanted their home to be really clean, then they would “clean like a mother” who understood that girly-colored cleaning products would somehow get the job done right.


Women in the ancient Western world were almost always expected to be in charge of domestic affairs, mostly cleaning and child-rearing. Once widespread advertisements became a popular means of product promotion, marketing teams opted to explicitly tell women that their place was in the home, and that it was in the home that they would be happiest. This Fuller Brush Company ad from 1956 provides a perfect example. Not only is this housewife using a tool that makes her cleaning easier, she has a desire to have the best cleaning tools because her clean kitchen is one of her most laudable life accomplishments. In the same way that her husband might strive to be the best salesman on his team, she strives to be the best house cleaner. Not really comparable in my opinion, but I guess everyone needs to have goals.


This Swiffer ad from 2014, made nearly 60 years after the Fuller Brush ad, also employs the “proud housewife” character. According to the advertisement, the modern mop being promoted enabled this woman to promptly clean up her kitchen after her messy child, and she couldn’t be any happier about it. Coated in purple, both this woman and her house are supposedly highly and rightly feminine. With regard to her all-purple outfit and her freshly cleaned kitchen, this is arguably one of the proudest moments of this mother’s life; it was all made possible by the Wet-Jet mop by Swiffer.


The role of “mother” in the ancient world was an interesting one. Not only were wives expected to be good, caring mothers to their actual children, they were also supposed to serve as a kind of proxy mother for their husbands. A man was supposed to be out in the public sphere, working to earn for the family, so once he left his birth-mother’s home, he still needed a woman to cook and clean for him- his wife. Women were told that to be a good wife, they would be just as good, or better than their mother-in-laws at domestic chores. To do this, a woman had to be diligent about finding products that would put her in good favor with her husband’s mother if she were ever to come to check on her son’s household. This 1944 ad for Singer sewing products explicitly shows a woman (rightfully) fretting about impressing her mother-in-law with quality garment making/repairing tools. The last thing she wants is to embarrass herself by having her mother-in-law think that her son is married to a woman incapable to preparing quality clothing. The fear of disappointing a husband’s mother would also persist for decades and serve as a reference point for purchasing decisions for wives across America.


Method, a company that is heavily featured in our gallery, continued to promote the fear of a mother-in-law’s scorn as a healthy concern in their 2014 ad campaign entitled “Clean Happy.” Here, the message is simply that this young wife should purchase Method cleaning products in order to avoid the aforementioned scorn. This shows that despite seventy years, and several women’s rights movements between the Singer ad and the Method campaign, ancient American women were still being subjected to socio-cultural rules that many of them had struggled to eliminate.


This Bosch ad from 2011 itself serves as a historical timeline of the relatively stagnant status of the ancient American woman. The banner boast “125 Years of Evolution,” and the viewer is immediately prompted to inquire about what exactly has evolved. Unfortunately for these women, it is the washing machine technology that has made the significant and noticeable progress. While the machines have “evolved” to become exponentially more efficient and less taxing on the physical body, the operators (the women) have really only changed in terms of their clothing and hairstyles, which is bound to happen as any culture moves forward in time. Bosch sent a loud and clear message to the women of 2011: regardless of how advanced these machines become, it has been and always will be a woman’s duty to attend to them.


Since the dawn of civilization, humans have designated specific times of the year to celebrate and honor various deities, facets of nature, and other humans. In ancient America, “Mother’s Day” was the one day a year that humans were to take time to celebrate and thank their mothers for life and love. Gifts to all the mothers in one’s life (mom, grandmother, wife, sister, etc.) were tradition, and companies invested a lot of time and energy in pitching products to be bought for a mother. Many times, the products and advertisements were designed to spoil a mother with temporary luxury. However, some companies saw this as an opportunity to remind society that nothing should make a mother happier than to take care of her home and her family; in fact, she should find so much pride and joy in this that she should want her reverence day gifts to enable her to be a better domestic being. This Hoover ad provides a perfect example. The pink-drenched ad states that by purchasing a vacuum cleaner as his wife’s Mother’s Day present, this husband will make his wife elated, and get lots of love and affection in return.

mr clean2001

Half a century later, in 2001, Mr. Clean aggressively asserted that domestic care was the best way to make a woman happy. By the 21st century, most ancient American women were employed outside of the home, but whatever additional job they held by no means relieved them of their domestic responsibilities. By purchasing Mr. Clean products for a mother, one could be sure to remind her that cleaning her house and rearing her children were the most important tasks a woman could tackle. These jobs “really mattered,” not like the one that payed them wages and gave them benefits in exchange for their hard work…


During the 1940’s, nearly every country in the ancient world was in some way involved in a global war, known by most as WWII. During this war, American women were called out of the home and into the work force since most of the men were off fighting abroad. One way that women were convinced that they were capable of doing the same work as a man was the creation and dispersal of the “Rosie the Riveter” character. Rosie was a strong woman who worked on planes and told women “we can do it, and many women did, providing America with a strong, female-backed workforce that kept the nation afloat while it was at war. After the war, however, women needed to be convinced to put down their tools and return to the domestic sphere. With women’s rights and feminist groups on the rise, this continued to be a difficult task for American society. Some companies, like Clorox, opted to repurpose the “Rosie” character, and used her to tell women that they “could do it,” “it” being cleaning and other domestic tasks. This ad from 2001 is an example of how American society continued to attempt to force women back into the home by telling them that their real strength lied in what they could do to serve their homes and their families.


This Swiffer ad is another example of the repurposing of the “Rosie” character. Released in the 2010’s, the woman featured fits the time period and is modernized, but she “realizes” that her interest in modern technology should be limited to the most new and advanced cleaning products. Once again, the message that a woman’s home is her pride, was still being thrust onto women despite heavy pushbacks.


This 1959 Whirlpool ad aims to help housewives by letting them know that technology will assist them in keeping up with their messy children. With a self-timer and quality cycles, this woman only needs to throw her son’s soiled clothes in and wait for the machine to finish while she attends to the home’s other needs.


Our old friend Method refused to be subtle in this ad which was part of the same “Clean Happy” campaign mentioned earlier. It tells this shrugging and confused young wife that there is no excuse for a messy house, despite how messy her family is, when she could be using Method products. Ads like this and the one for Whirlpool made women directly responsible for ensuring that their household was clean and maintained at all times.


Designating certain tasks and behaviors to women through advertisements didn’t stop at the promotion of cleaning tools. Writing tools, though seemingly genderless, managed to become gendered by clever marketing teams. This 1965 ad for a Parker pen claims to “girl-sized” for all of a woman’s writing needs. It claims to be sensitive and accommodating, by stating that it was time for the men who made pens to cater to their sexual counterparts. While these writing tools are now obsolete, when you consider that adult human hands vary more according to the size of the individual, not their sex, it becomes painfully obvious that this marketing ploy aimed to separate what was feminine from what was masculine.


In 2015, the Bic pen company chose to celebrate women on “Women’s Day” by encouraging them to buy pens that would allow them to retain their femininity while engaging in the “manly” task of thinking. By 2015, women in ancient America had earned the right to vote and manage their own finances, they held public offices, and a former first lady was close in the running to become President of the nation. Still, many viewed tasks that required critical intellectual engagement to be best performed by men, and some even still went as far to say that women were physically incapable of such engagement. Here, Bic is telling women that they can in fact think critically, but that they are still doing a man’s work, and that they should attempt to maintain a semblance of womanhood while they do such work. Apparently, the best way to do that was to buy pens designed especially for women…

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