IBDP Extended Essay: Women in Advertisements

 Topic: Women in Advertisements

"How has the presentation of females in automotive advertisements changed over the past six decades?"

English Language and Literature Category 3: Studies in Language 

Word count: 4000 words


The advertising industry is an ever changing business in an ever changing world, in which technology and instant information lies in the centre of one's lifestyle. Information is available to the majority of people at all times. Being exposed to such rapid changes in our society, the industry has had to adapt in numerous ways in order to be noticed by potential clients. Consequently, the methods of advertising have altered in respect to the use of language, visual layout and motifs used. Advertisements are everywhere in society; on the radio, television, public transport, even on cars and practically anywhere the human eye can see. Children alone are exposed to around 20,000 thirty-second television ads a year (Berger, Arthur Asa). By influencing our mindset, advertisements can be considered a representation of a generation and its economic, social and political situation. The representation of women in advertisements has generally developed from being presented as simple-minded, male-dependent accessories of society in the early 20th century to being sex-symbols in the late 20th century. In car advertisements this can be readily identified through an industry long associated with male dominance.

The personal connection and interest I hold for this topic originates from having moved between different countries and being exposed to new cultures and societies, first-handedly seeing how the methods of advertisements alter from one country to another. Recognizing the change in focus of society by heavily relying on technology, it was always fascinating for me to observe the change in advertisement methods and linguistic features used. With the average German spending 9 hours and 56 minutes online daily, including television and radio, the advertising industry has had to adapt. (Engel and Breunig). Living in Germany, where Audi and BMW are headquartered, ‘both companies being listed under the most profitable car companies in the world’ (Tracy, Tom), I was interested in which methods were applied in the advertisements of these corporations to achieve such high sales. Having investigated a variety of advertisements by going through company archives, a recurring theme of the use of women was identified, yet also an alteration and correlation in how females are presented over time. This drove me to develop the research question:

"How has the presentation of females in automotive advertisements changed over the past six decades?"
The development in feminist movements and ongoing change in the status of women became focal to how advertisements functioned in the twentieth century. The rising feminist sentiment is a direct effect of centuries of supression. Looking at Germany in the 1920s, the country where both Audi and BMW were founded, women generally had a "new physical figure who not only cut her hair and shortened her skirts but began to emancipate herself altogether from the physical limitations of being female". This was noted by Alice Ruehl-Gerster, a female psychologist in the 1920s that analysed the change in society's behaviour towards women. However, she also mentions this new image of women not entirely being acknowledged. For example, mothers' day slogans stated: "Children, Kitchen, Church". This demonstrates the mindset of a male dominated society - this attitude being reflected in advertisements during the time in which tidy, male-dependent, family-oriented females were shown. Yet in the 1970s and 80s, the presentation of women faced a turning point. Females were objectified and marked with eroticism in the media.
In the car industry, a heavy focus was placed on females and the message they would convey to a potential buyer. Cars were a luxury and symbols of social status - they defined a man and his social standing. Owning a car conveyed the message of being a successful, wealthy, strong member of society who probably had an obedient wife and family at his side.
For this essay, I will be analysing how the representation of women in BMW and Audi advertisements developed and changed from the mid to late 20th and early 21st century. This essay will focus on American advertisements as the US significantly contributed to the high sales of both automotive companies. I will consider the social, economic and political situation of the times to discuss how these may have influenced advertising decisions. Moreover, I will evaluate how language and stylistic features are utilised to convey a certain message to potential buyers.

Social situation in 1960s America

The post war 1950s and early 1960s was an era of social change and opportunity amidst America (H. Wittelbols). Ivy-league education institutes started admitting women to their universities in the late 1960s, enabling women to gain an equal education. However, the female workforce was exposed to major disadvantages including the pay-gap, which according to the President's commission on the Status of Women i​ n 1963 was estimated at 59 cents for every dollar that a male colleague earned ("President's Commission on the Status of Women"). In recognition of these statistics a Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, leading to the prohibition of discrimination based on gender and as race. With the passing of this act, one would expect the advertisement industry to adapt accordingly.

Advertising Industry in America in the 1960s
During the 1960s it was typical for advertisements to contain a text describing the advertised product. Conventional features were disregarded and replaced with humor, irony and irreverence. Due to the post- war baby boom, 50% of the American population was below the age of 25, leading to a change in the target group in the industry. Consumerism, capitalism and materialism were topics which the youth had revolted and protested against, causing adverts to take on a different, more contemporary, timely approach, in which creativity was the key to an advertisement's success.

BMW's financial situation in the 1960s
In 1959 BMW was near bankruptcy, in debt and constantly losing money (P. Norbye). As a result of expansionism and acquisition throughout the years, BMW developed the strength and 'know-how' that allowed it to focus on advertisement strategies to save the company.

The advertisement exhibits BMW's main objective: to sell their new automobile to potential buyers in the late 1960s. The advertisement targets the average American male who is married and in need of a "dependable" vehicle that does not create too much "fuss". The viewer is drawn to the headline "Why is BMW a man's car," establishing a sense of sexism and exclusion, followed by an explanation claiming that it was designed for a man's taste. A list is given in which numerous positive traits including: "fast, lean, tough. No frills, no nonsense" are listed, implying that a woman's taste is the opposite; slow, fragile and nonsensical. Furthermore, is mentions that the car "rarely needs attention, yet alone repairs" in line 14-15, hereby establishing a parallel to the man's life at home, humorously claiming that his female partner longs for attention, requires repairs and that this new vehicle will not change his everyday life for the worse, but rather play the role that a female was expected to in the 1960s. Mentioning that the car has "a style that doesn't change every year, just to make your old one obsolete" implies that this car is one to keep and gives an impression of society in the 1960s where the post war mindset of saving money and resources was customary. The advertisement however suggests that women are oblivious to this and unaware of the consequences of such negligent manners. Specifically the phrase ‘a style that doesn’t change every year’ seemingly creates a parallel to a woman’s wardrobe and implies a correlation to a female’s constant need for attention similar to lines 14-15. With this statement BMW appeals to a male's sense of efficiency and emphasises their marketing strategy through the lexical field of low-maintenance, dependability and amicable vehicle. The last sentence intends to engage the audience through humour and give the reader a sense of identification. The use of language is particularly interesting, stating that: "The only complaint we get from BMW owners is that their wives like it too.". The use of assumptive language not only demonstrates the pressure that individuals were exposed to in the '60s' in regard to marriage and building a family, but also demonstrates the problematic situation of females wanting to drive in the 1960s.

Yet, the most noticeable feature of the advertisement is the lacking acknowledgement of the opposite sex. Commencing with the headline, “Why is BMW a man’s car?”, a sense of ostracism is automatically created. The advertisement rejects 50% of the population as a target group and emphasizes this idea of a male hierarchical society. The only time when the female sex is mentioned is when sarcastically stating: “The only complaint we get from BMW owners is that their wives like it too. The only solution we can think of is two BMW's. His and Hers.” This humorously suggests that the customer should purchase two cars and contradicts the incentive that “the car rarely needs attention yet alone repairs”. The paragraph alludes to a "solution" that only the wealthiest could afford due to the ongoing war mentality of thrift. This may imply that women had been regarded in society when associated with their husband, but ridiculed and dismissed as individuals due to this low percentage of the population who could afford this luxury. Overall, the complete neglect of females as a target group, re-emphasises the traditional and misogynist attitude which was prevalent in the 1960s.

II. BMW - 2016
Social situation in America in the 2010s

Often referred to the "fourth wave of feminism", this decade brought about numerous changes for women in particular. Through the increased attention to media and easily accessible internet, women were able to voice their opinions on an entirely new platform. An example of this included the #MeToo campaign, where sexual abuse victims spoke out about their experience. Officially first utilised on the virtual platform ​MySpace ​in 2007, the hashtag went viral and had a global effect on societal attitudes, particularly highlighting the issues that women were still facing throughout their lives. In 2015, statistics recorded that one in five women were raped at some point in their lives (Hazelwood and Burgess). On the other hand, in 2015 the U.S supreme court overruled all state bans on same sex marriage, legalising the act in all 50 states. Overall, the 2010s are marked as an era of ongoing change, tolerance and equality for minority groups and women.

BMW's financial situation in the 2010s
From 2011 to 2015, BMW experienced a substantial increase in sales and profit. However, the total number of women working in the BMW Group was quite shockingly only 18.1% in 2015, demonstrating the ongoing traditionalist mindset of the company and lack of diversity and equality ("Annual Report BMW Group 2015"). With the feminist social media movements and this financially stable situation, one would think that BMW would adapt not only their number of female workers yet also advertisement methods to fit the changing times.

Advertising Industry in America in the 2010s
With an increased focus on social media in society, the advertisement industry adapted itself in ways that were considered completely revolutionary and modern. More emphasis was placed on social media platforms than ever before. A completely new era of advertisement was reached in which companies were able to approach the entire world over one virtual platform. With this modern concept of sharing information, an increased focus on celebrities and public figures was laid, as these individuals would most likely have the greatest reach in the world. Advertisements in general throughout the 2010s placed their focus on pictorial features and inserted a captivating catchphrase in order to gain the reader's attention in opposition to larger paragraphs describing the product advertised as used in previous decades. Through the increasing attention to feminism and political correctness, the advertisement industry has oftentimes had to adapt its ways in presenting women in order to overcome the issue of objectification and rather portray women in an equal manner to men.

The advertisement is taken from a video campaign and photoshoot in which the well-known model Gigi Hadid is depicted. The advertisement automatically draws the viewer's attention to the female situated in the center. With a fierce facial expression, strong body language and pose, and bold red coloured attire, an illusion of female power is created. However, the fact that the colour of the hashtag from "#EYESONGIGI" is identical to the woman's dress, indirectly lays emphasis on her figure and body, rather than on the vehicles placed in the background. In the original video campaign the "#EYESONGIGI" represented an interactive challenge in which the female stepped into one of the cars depicted in the background and the viewers had to guess at the end of the video, where Hadid was. Whilst one can argue that the advertisement is futuristic and promotes a sporty, vibrant lifestyle; the advertisement is not promoting a vehicle, yet more so the female, given that the cars are not the focus of the advertisement. As the advertisement is promoting a sports car and is set in a racing milieu, one would assume that the model's attire would match this scenery. However, the female is placed into a tightly fitting dress and hereby diminishes her dominance. In doing so, BMW, completely disassociated themselves from the ongoing female empowerment movement and contradicted the altering social situation throughout the western world.
From the two advertisements analysed, one can conclude that whilst women were completely disregarded during the 1960s as a target group for automotive vehicles; in 2016 Gigi Hadid, a female model lies in the focus of the advertisement and facilitates the impression that women are equal, or even more powerful than men. However, given the slogan and her closely fitting attire this sense of female empowerment is slightly diminished.

Social Situation in America in the 1970s

In the 1970s many females took on significant government roles including Mary Louise Smith who became the first woman Chair of the Republican National Committee in 1974. In the United States, 50,000 women had marched together in New York to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 19th Amendment and demanded free abortions and childcare. The women’s rights movement accomplished the passing of the Title IX in 1972 stating that: “sex discrimination in any form of educational program receiving federal finational aid” was forbidden. Furthermore, the U.S supreme court ruled that abortion throughout all the states in America was legal in 1973. Audi’s financial situation in the 1970s
In 1970, Audi was experiencing great success and revenue growth. For the automobile company it was a period of expansion. The Volkswagen AG. was not able to completely satisfy the demand for Audi Models considering the fact that 35% more Audi cars were sold than in 1969, the appeal for Audi automobiles grew substantially (“Report for the year 1970 Volkswagenwerk Aktiengesellschaft Wolfsburg”). With women in the workforce increasing, the need of transport methods increased, hence, leading to a large growth in sales numbers. With this new era for females and the requirement of mobility, Audi should have modified their advertising methods and laid more emphasis on female purchasing power.

Advertising industry in America in the 1970s
Whilst the 1960s signified an era of revolution against outmoded superficial consumerism, the 1970s were marked by the introduction of technology in an individual’s everyday life. With an emphasis on media, Television advertisements were the most frequently used medium. As of 1972 - television was in full colour as opposed to black and white advertisements which would have not been as appealing to the audience. The television industry in America made 6 billion dollars in 1976 alone from advertising (Heimann and Heller).

This advertisement by Audi in the early 1970s surprisingly does not automatically address a male target group. Through the pictorial elements including a woman next to an open car door and the use of elegant, light colours, females are primarily addressed. It surpasses the stereotypical mindset of women being male dependent, who know that their place lies next to a man's side. As mentioned, in this advertisement, the woman is the center of attention next to the vehicle with the door slightly opened. This facilitates the impression that she is able to control and drive the car herself and not be led by a man, as was prevalent during the mid 20th century, demonstrating a turning point in the society's mindset. The font and use of colour fabricates an athletic, modern, yet elegant style through the contrasting colours of black and silver and the sophisticated attire of the woman and the casual style of font. The word silver fox is not only symbolic of wealth, status and wisdom, but suggests that the woman depicted, embodies these traits. This is again emphasised through the classic silver tone in the font colour, which lies in a complementing contrast to the block font, emphasising this relaxed, graceful fashion. The headline stating: "Buy your wife a Silver Fox by Audi. It's her style" can be interpreted in two ways. On one hand, one can argue that the quote stating: "It's her size" is a reference to clothing and reduces females to primarily being interested in their appearance for their male partner. On the other hand, "It's her style" could further highlight this active, sophisticated voguish mindset which is a prevalent theme in the advertisement. The humorous idiom "fits women to a T", indicates that the car is primarily designed for a female target group. This is emphasised through the headline mentioning the word "wife"; indicating the mindset of society and the emphasis which was laid on sex roles in marriage. However, the advertisement has a modern approach to the subject which is indicated through the woman standing unescorted, with an elegant, carefree pose creating a scenario in which the wife has just received the vehicle from her giving husband. However, through the repetitive use of the pronoun "she", it is implied that a woman is not in the position to purchase her own automobile and is dependent on her husband to make that revolutionary decision for her. The advertisement presents females in a capable, independent manner and sophisticated style, in comparison to how women were completely ignored as a target group decades before. However, it still comprises a traditional mindset when discussing who is in charge of buying the vehicle.

Audi’s situation in the 2010s

The 2010s were a turbulent, yet successful decade for Audi. The sales from the 2000s ensured financial stability and global demand for products. In particular, China had become a key market, representing 108,000 of the 705,000 automobiles delivered in the first three quarters of 2009 (Chan and Zakkour). With this global reach Audi and the increasing attention towards the ongoing feminist movement, one would assume that Audi, as one of the largest automobile manufacturers, would present women favourably in their advertisements.

The advertisement above lays the focus mainly on the bold red colour and polished silver car positioned in the centre of the advertisement. A colour scheme of red and grey can be identified. Both colours often being associated with the company and the contrast between the matte background and glossy car, particularly lays the focus on the vehicle. What is most intriguing is the fact that the woman is dressed in colours that are fitting with the background of the advertisement, a subtle grey tone. Automatically, a connection can be drawn between the car and the woman, which can be linked to the bold text stating "jealousy". The text and the bold red colour complement each other in the sense that intense emotions including anger, power and jealousy are often associated with this colour and creates a dramatic climax, due to advertisement depicting a freeze frame of action. The word "jealousy" and the fact that the car and the woman are both depicted in shades of grey indicate that the woman is competing with the car. In this image, the woman takes on the role as the impulsive, reckless individual who cannot be controlled. This can be linked with the traditionalistic mindset of the past in which women were often regarded as hysterical individuals and men would be the rational thinkers of the family. Therefore, the advertisement is clearly targeted at a male audience and attempts to appeal to a male's sense of humour. Moreover, due to this simple colour scheme, the viewer is automatically drawn to the female's legs, which are extensively depicted due to her revealing clothing. This potentially gives rise to a sense of sex appeal and therefore may highten the potential buyer's interest. Furthermore, in the descriptive text on the bottom left of the advertisement, it is mentioned that "It's easy to be mesmerised by the new Audi A7 sportback", in this instance one has to question if individuals are mesmerised by the vehicle or by the woman. Generally, the appeal of the advertisement lies on the glossy car which the female is jealous of and presents the idea that gaining the attention of a male is the ultimate goal. Whilst the advertisement is published quite recently, it still exhibits some of the sexist views that were prevalent during the twentieth century advertising.

With regard to the Research Question: “How has the presentation of females in automotive advertisements changed over the past six decades?” one can conclude that whilst BMW completely disregarded females as potential clients during the late 1960s and targeted their advertisement methods on the male part of society; Audi acknowledged women by using pictorial features and a prevalent theme of independence from men during the 1970s. Both advertisements however, to some extent included a traditional mindset, with both advertisements entertaining the theme of what marriage was meant to be and often alluding to the idea that women are merely addressed when associated with their husbands. After having analysed the modern advertisements, one can conclude that both brands changed their approach and created this allusion of female dominance and power. BMW presented a larger focus on the use of female celebrities in order to reach a larger audience through the media. However, in the advertisement which was published in 2016, elements of sexism and objectification were identified through the focuse on the model's attire and oversexualised figure, rather than on the product being advertised. On the other hand, Audi placed their emphasis on the vehicle and created a dramatic effect on the viewer due to the striking colour contrast in the advertisement. Whilst the female persona looked fierce and powerful, this idea was diminished through the use of text, language and clothing attire. BMW as a brand altered the way females are presented in advertisements through firstly, acknowledging women in their advertisements and secondly by objectifying them. Whilst this inclusive manner towards females in advertisements seems to be progressive, the fact that the woman was dressed in a tight red dress whilst being on a race track, demeans this seemingly powerful figure. Audi’s advertisement in the 1970s depicted a sophisticated female and alluded to the idea that the woman was going to drive the vehicle, emitting a futuristic and modern mindset in regards to women. This idea was suppressed through the use of text which lay a great deal of focus on traditional marriage relationships and the role of a husband and wife within that defined conservative relationship, where the balance of emotional, economic and social power lay with the husband. When analysing the change, there was the lack of emphasis on traditional customs including marriage in the modern advertisement published in 2010. However, the advertisement depicted women as hysterical and reckless individuals, and focussed their target audience on males. Overall, the presentation of females in car advertisements has changed from not even being regarded as individuals and dependent on their husbands, to being oversexualised, often hysterical figures of society. Whilst advertisements nowadays do contain elements of progression, there is still a dominant theme of sexism and objectification prevalent giving rise to the idea that there was hardly any positive change throughout the last decades.

Alice Rühle-Gerstel, “Back to the Good Old Days?,” in The Weimar Republic Sourcebook, ed. Anton Kaes, Martin Jay, and Edward Dimendberg (University of California Press, 1994), 218
"Annual Report BMW Group 2015" Bayerische Motoren Werke, 2015, https://www.bmwgroup.com/content/dam/grpw/websites/bmwgroup_com/ir/downloads/en/2016/ hv/2015-BMW-Group-Annual-Report.pdf​, Assessed 15th August 2020
Berger, Arthur Asa, "Ads, Fads, and Consumer Culture: Advertising's Impact on American Character and Society" Rowman & Littlefield, 2015, 75
Chan and Zaakour, “China's Super Consumers: What 1 Billion Customers Want and How to Sell it to Them”, John Wiley and Sons, 2014, Assessed 29th August 2020
Engel and Breunig "Massenkommunikation 2015: Mediennutzung im Intermediavergleich", 7th August 2015, pp. 312, Assessed 10th june 2020
Hazelwood and Burgess "Practical Aspects of Rape Investigation: A multidisciplinary Appraoch" CRC Press, 2008, Assessed 15th August 2020
Heimann and Heller, “The Golden Age of Advertising” Taschen, 2006, Assessed 28th August 2020
"President's Commission on the Status of Women: American Women: Report Volume 7, Issue 1 of Social welfare and social groups pamphlets" U.S government Printing Office, 1963, Assessed 12th August 2020
 “Report for the year 1970 Volkswagenwerk Aktiengesellschaft Wolfsburg” Volkswagenwerk Aktiengesellschaft Wolfsburg, 1970, https://www.volkswagenag.com/presence/konzern/images/teaser/history/chronik/annual-report/1 970-Annual-Report.pdf, Assessed 28th August 2020
Tracy, Tom, “The most profitable car companies in 2019”, Investopedia, https://www.investopedia.com/articles/company-insights/091516/most-profitable-auto-companie s-2016-tm-gm.asp​ assessed 27th April 2020
Wittelbols, H. James, "Watching America: A Social History of the 1972-1983 Television Series", McFarland, 2003, Assessed 12th August 2020