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Then and Now: Have We Changed Our Portrayal of Women in the Media?

A Comparison of Two Cosmopolitan Ads from 1997 and 2017

By IrisPublished 7 years ago 5 min read

Our portrayal of women in advertising has been under scrutiny since about the 90s. Has this scrutiny changed the way we view and portray women? The role of women in society certainly has. Looking at two ads from Cosmopolitan, one from 1997 and one from 2017, we may be able to divulge the answer. The first ad from 1997 displays a grungy, seductive temptress wearing “under the covers colors,” while the second from 2017 shows the typical girl-next-door wearing trendy makeup and clothing that sexualizes her more subtly.

Cosmo 1997

The first ad is from 1997. The woman in this ad has dark hair with ombre highlights that is down over her face. This indicates that the focus should be on the woman’s body. She has dark makeup and is bearing her midriff and wearing a very sheer bralette. The pinks and purples that she is wearing draw a lot of attention to the body, and she is wearing a low hanging necklace that is meant to draw attention to her breasts. She is standing in front of a mural with flowers and birds, which could be a reference to the Garden of Eden, showing Eve after she has eaten the forbidden fruit. This woman is meant to be a seductress. The shadows are dark, as is the contrast, and she is striking a very sexual pose. The triangle between her arm and head represents a vagina. The copy states that this woman is wearing “under the covers colors” meaning that this outfit gives her sex appeal. The advertisers were playing with the grunge trend of the time, targeting younger girls between 16 and 24 to show them a sexy version of grunge. The copy is very small and off to the side in an effort not to distract from the focus of the ad; the woman’s body is meant to be the centerpiece of the ad and the main selling point.

The woman in this ad is highly sexualized and is trying to tell young women that men want them when they are sexy. She is portraying the ideal of the time for their target age group of about 16-27. Her skin is clear and smooth, and she is thin and muscular, as was the ideal woman of the time. She also has smaller breasts, which was the desire in the 90s. She does, however, have wrinkles where her side bends to make the pose she is in, which would be airbrushed out if this was a current ad. She is wearing very typical makeup of the 90s with dark eyeshadow and contour, sheer lip gloss, and very little or nothing done to the eyebrows. There is nothing subtle about this advertising. It screams, “This is the perfect woman! You want to be sexy just like her!”

Cosmo 2017

The second ad is from the October edition of Cosmopolitan in 2017. The ad is in full color, but the model is wearing greyscale clothing. She is wearing a cropped jacket, a sports bra, and shiny jogger pants. She is also baring her midriff, but she is striking a much subtler pose and looking at the camera very plainly. Her makeup is very subtle. The blurring behind her, as well as the shadows, indicate that she is being photographed in a set of some kind. The colors behind her are very muted neutrals. Her head is cocked to the side to elongate her neck, and the pose she is striking subtly accents the curves of her body. Her hair is pulled back and away from her face. The advertisement falls right in line with the current athleisure trend, as she is wearing a sports bra and joggers with a trendy jacket. The earrings the model is wearing create a triangle near her face, also symbolizing a vagina. It is however a much smaller, subtler symbol than in the ad from 1997. The ad is selling her clothing, but it also advertises the La Mer face powder she is wearing. The ad mostly lets the clothes speak for themselves, but the La Mer powder is advertised as “your ultimate post workout buddy” and that it “blurs pores, nixes excess oil, and leaves you with a healthy matte finish.” This advertising is a commentary on the modern ideal of a woman: free of pores, oil, or unnecessary shine on her face, even after a workout. Most of the copy is small and off to the side, but the copy advertising the face powder is large and multi-colored. There is even an arrow drawn from the copy pointing at the model’s face.

The model in this ad portrays the girl-next-door. She is wearing very “natural” makeup, looking plainly at the camera, and is wearing very casual looking clothing. However, she is still today’s ideal woman, and she is more sexualized than she at first appears. Every inch of her body has been airbrushed. She has larger breasts and a curvier body because that is becoming the ideal of our generation. She is bearing her midriff and showing cleavage, meant to attract and portray a sexy, everyday woman. The position she is striking is much subtler, but it is meant to elongate her body and display her curves. While she is not overtly giving the camera a sultry look, her eyes are seductive. She is wearing makeup typical of our time: very natural looking face makeup, light contour, strong highlight, filled in brows, a full-coverage lipstick, and very neutral eyeshadow. The La Mer powder is also advertised as a “beauty tip.” This woman is being portrayed as beautiful.

Advertisers are trying to show a difference in marketing by displaying women as overtly beautiful instead of overtly sexual. But the subtle sexuality of this ad is undeniable. This woman is still considered the ideal among the same age group of people. Our focus as a society has shifted more to makeup than to clothing, but her body is again the focus of this ad. Every possible imperfection has been airbrushed away. The sports bra draws attention to the breasts due to the rectangular cutouts in the cleavage area. Rectangles in marketing are also very phallic and are a subtle reminder of male genitalia.

A woman’s role in advertising certainly has changed: instead of being an overtly sexy creature, women are now being portrayed as beautiful. It is an effort by the advertising industry to show a greater respect for women due to the scrutiny and judgment they have been experiencing. However, the subtle sexuality in this portrayal of women bears a glaring message: despite the change in the way women are used to sell clothing, women are still being used. Women are still viewed as inherently sexual and desirous. Our standards of beauty have changed in the last twenty years, and advertisers are trying to cover their tracks, but this advertising has the same tactic. It creates self-esteem issues, especially for younger girls, and uses that weakness to sell clothing and makeup. We have certainly changed the way we portray women in advertising and the media, but is that difference for the better?


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