Killer Advertising

At the beginning of each year, most of us consider changes we would like to make in our personal lives. I decided to bypass the usual weight and fitness resolutions and focus on institutions I’d like to change. The list is long, but I have prioritized mass-market advertisements because they are pervasive and have the power to shape viewers’ attitudes toward much more than the products they are promoting.

I hope after reading this piece, you will join me in a campaign to improve advertisers’ practices.

My particular concern relates to advertisements that objectify women. If a woman is objectified, she is made less than human. Once she is less than human, violence towards her becomes more acceptable.

The hallmarks of objectification include: (1) interchangeability; (2) reduction to appearance; (3) being an instrument for someone else’s purpose; (4) inertness or passivity; and (5) capacity to being violated or lacking bodily integrity.

Many current advertisements meet most, if not all, of these criteria. Consider this promotion:

Because we do not see the woman’s face, she is fully interchangeable with another well-portioned model. She has been reduced to her appearance with her body used as a display platform, an instrument. Her pose is a passive and vulnerable one.

The advertisements below take objectification further by dismembering the models in addition to containing the other characteristics described above.


A woman who is objectified becomes something and ceases to be someone. She has no autonomy, much less inherent value. She is a thing to be used, abused, and discarded as a man chooses.

If that seems extreme, consider advertisements that portray violence against women or the death of women, showing just their corpses.



Advertisements depicting violence against women are harmful for several reasons. One is that they may be seen as mocking the serious consequences of violence. Another is the possibility that the scenes will inspire a copycat to re-enact them. Most damaging is their message that violence against women is acceptable.

Andrea Dworkin stated that “pornography functions to perpetuate male supremacy and crimes of violence because it conditions, trains, educates, and inspires men to despise women, to use women, to hurt women.” I believe advertisements depicting violence against women have the same effects.

This conclusion is supported by recent research on mirror neurons, those switches in our brains that operate virtually outside our consciousness to cause us to mimic others’ behaviors that we witness. (Yawning is an example.) Clever marketers play on mirror neurons to incent us to engage in the behavior they desire. One would have to study the psychology of the ad executives who envision portrayals of violence against women to know if they intend to engage mirror neurons to that end. But regardless of their motive, that may be the effect of their hateful creations.

Using the power of our pocketbooks and social media, we have the ability to discourage the publication of advertisements that objectify women or depict violence against women. Don’t buy products that are promoted in these ads. Don’t buy magazines that publish them.

Use Twitter to register your revulsion. Post a photo or a description of the ad on Twitter with the hashtag #NotBuyingIt and include the actual Twitter handle of the seller of the product or the name of the publication.

Feel the power of Margaret Mead’s words: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Let’s do it!

Kate McGuinness is a lawyer who spent 17 years at Biglaw before becoming the general counsel of a Fortune 500 corporation. After leaving that position, she studied creative writing and is the author of a legal suspense novel Terminal Ambition, which will be published early in 2012. She is an advocate for women and tweets as @womnsrightswrter.

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