How Food Advertising Drives Gender Inequality

BY ADDIE LERNER

Over many decades, food advertisements created an ambivalent relationship between women and food that centers around guilt, overindulgence, and anxiety. These ads depict women’s insatiable cravings for food, typically sweets or chocolate, and promote the idea that their desires are most likely due to their uncontrollable female hormones that feminist Katherine Parkin discusses in her work about gender roles in modern America. The media commonly pictures women overindulging in Ben and Jerry’s after getting dumped, or splurging with a box of chocolate in order to celebrate a new romantic relationship—and regardless of what she is eating, the woman is portrayed as letting her emotions, which are typically triggered by a male figure, overtake her ability to control her temptations.

This presentation of women in the media manifests the contradiction between the stereotypical way women act towards food and the way society idealizes their bodies. On one hand, society sees women as too weak to control their desires, but it also promotes the image of women being restrictive, healthy, and skinny. This unbalance between what advertising companies wants women to look like and how they portrays women acting creates anxiety for female consumers. In order to sell their products, companies offer “safe” temptations that further enforce the idea that women should restrict themselves from indulging too often and that they should maintain a thin figure. This notion brought on from advertising that women must keep a low-calorie diet engenders a sense of guilt amongst the female audience, especially when they do decide to over-eat, and creates a greater divide between the male and female stereotypes surrounding food. These advertisements breed the idea that women are unable to resist temptations, but they also place a societal obligation on these same women to restrict themselves from overindulging in these very temptations and is explained in another feminist Susan Bordo’s work about the tension that advertising companies generate. In this exhibit, four food advertisements (and one studio piece inspired by food advertising) demonstrate this complicated relationship that large industry-dominating food companies create between women and food and depict the mystification of food products that maintain the acceptance of gender hierarchies in contemporary culture.

Unstripping the Truth about Gender Inequality

 

Coke

“Coke” Studio Design, Department International, 2013

Modern American popular culture has a saying that “sex sells,” but food advertisements sell more than a product — they sell ideas. When placed next to an overly sexualized woman, food becomes a symbol of satisfaction and pleasure. Suddenly, the product being advertised is considered to be of the same value as the women’s sexuality that is depicted. She appears eager and ready to be consumed, resulting in a culture of acceptance for gender inequality. While all men and women do not believe in this gender hierarchy, the recurrence of food advertisements depicting women in this way shows the acceptance of the media’s practices. The woman in this design has an hourglass figure that is meant to represent a Coke bottle—the product itself isn’t even shown. The woman’s figure is also an unattainable fantasy—drinking Coke will not give someone the model’s body shape that the media drives to be consider ideal.

Stereotypes Surrounding Femininity

 

Jalna

Jalna, print advertisement

Despite being the only healthy product in this exhibit, this advertisement from the Australian yogurt company, Jalna, perpetuates a few stereotypes surrounding women’s guilty relationship with food. It evokes the idea that women are emotional eaters and overindulge when they are upset about men. The ad portrays a seemingly bothered and vulnerable woman after a night out, who ended the night alone in her apartment. The tagline claims that after having “yet another guilt trip” she could turn to Jalna for a “guilt free” satiation. Since the yogurt is so small in the advertisement, “Fat Free” dominates the label, even over the company’s name.  By saying that its okay to splurge in their product, Jalna establishes the idea that women should feel guilty for overindulging. A key feature of this ad is that it shows the woman being alone, suggesting that indulging like this is not something a man should see. Jalna promotes and perpetuates the stereotype that women should watch their weight and the way they represent themselves in front of others. The ad companies are the ones who have the power in controlling the culture surrounding food, and by creating an anxious relationship among women surrounding food, the advertising company takes agency away from their female audience.

Carl’s Jr. and Objectified Overeating

 

Carl's Jr.

Carl’s Jr., commercial advertisement, 2015

Carl’s Jr., the American fast-food burger chain, ran a commercial promoting their new Tex Mex Bacon Thick Burger that features fit, scantily clad models like Alejandra Guilmant and Elle Evans. The two models, representing Mexico and the United States respectively, duel each other in a beach volleyball game in order to poke fun at the immigration debate. While the commercial does touch on the political issue and the product itself, its main focus is on the models, highlighting their sex appeal and perfect figures. These women ravenously eat the Tex Mex Bacon Thick Burgers and are portrayed as being able to eat the greasy fast-food meals while still keeping their sexy bodies—meanwhile, they get paid to advertise the product, not to actually eat it. This commercial sexualizes the idea of women and eating and promotes body and beauty ideals that are not only unrealistic but also problematic.  People who regularly eat fast food most likely do not have the same figure as these paid actresses and models, but the commercial presents the idea that one can eat Carl’s Jr. burgers and not only stay in shape, but have the voluptuous body that society idealizes. It also puts shame on the viewers who eat Carl’s Jr. and don’t have stick thin figures, ultimately allowing consumer culture to constrain and control women and furthering the acceptance of sexualizing women in the media.

Food as a “Guilty Pleasure”

Popchips

Popchips, print advertisement, 2013

The snack company, Popchips, takes food-shaming to the next level by centering its entire advertisement around the idea that their chips are not only healthier than the competitors—they are guilt-free. The ad shows an image of 100 calories of Popchips stacked next to the calorie equivalent of fried and kettle style chips. The portion sizes for all three chips are small and it features the fat, carb, protein, and fiber content of each—drawing attention to the fact that you can eat twice the amount of Popchips for half the fat. It also points out that Popchips are “never fried (unhealthy) and never baked (undelicious)…so share some popped love and don’t let your friends eat fried.” By speaking negatively of the other options, the company makes people feel even more guilty about eating the other types of chips. It is arguable that none of these options are healthy, but Popchips is trying to provide a healthier alternative that one doesn’t have to feel guilty about—implying that one should normally feel guilty when snacking on chips. When food advertisements are geared towards women, the focus is rarely on taste—it’s on few calories. And when calories are involved, companies often market the product to be a “guilty pleasure” as a way of altering their audience’s everyday, food-vigilant lives. By drawing attention to the pleasuring aspect of eating their product, Popchips too perpetuates this notion of food being a symbol of pleasure, without even having to feature a sexualized image of a woman in the advertisement.

McDonald’s and Containing Temptation

 

McDonald's

McDonald’s, print advertisement, 2013

Although science and biology play a role in determining which foods women and men are drawn to, societal attitudes, especially those that are so crudely captured in advertisements, engender the relationship between gender and eating. Over time, salads have been coded as feminine and cheeseburgers as masculine. In this advertisement, McDonald’s describes the thought process of so many women who are longing for a Big Mac but opt for a salad in order to constrain themselves from indulging in the caloric sandwich. McDonald’s does a great job of making the burger look so tempting but then pushes it behind the text, mimicking the internal struggle one faces when she craves a juicy burger but suppresses that desire behind her guilt. Overall, this ad perpetuates the notion that there is a cycle of restrained, and ultimately unsatisfying, eating that many women face. Despite the rise of gender equality and promotion of gender ideals in media and popular culture recently, food advertisements seem to be one of the last pillars of separation.

Main image photo credit: Arby’s IP Holder Trust, with edits by Addie Lerner

Bibliography

Bordo, Susan. “Hunger as Ideology” (pp. 99-134) In Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999.

Parkin, Katherine. Campbell’s Soup and the Long Shelf Life of Traditional Gender Roles.

Parkin, Katherine J. Food Is Love: Food Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania, 2006. Print.

 

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