Can Gendered Advertising Icons Affect Change?


Emily Heist Moss wonders if advertising can be activism, or if it’s just a reflection upon society’s expectations.

Originally appeared at

Last week, Ad Age, a trade publication that keeps tabs on the shifting trends and constant mergers of the advertising world (of which I was briefly a member), has published their top 10 female advertising icons of the last 100 years.


1. Morton Salt Umbrella Girl

2. Betty Crocker

3. Miss Chiquita

4. Rosie the Riveter

5. Josephine the Plumber (Comet)

6. Mrs. Olsen (Folgers coffee)

7. Madge the Manicurist (Palmolive dishwashing detergent)

8. Rosie the Waitress (Bounty paper towels)

9. Clara Peller (Wendy’s)

10. Flo (Progressive Insurance)


Here’s another way to think about that list: kitchen, kitchen, kitchen, war time propaganda, cleaning, kitchen, cleaning, cleaning, restaurant, insurance. If a historian were to review the last century’s advertising campaigns to understand the role of women, they might come away assuming women rarely left the domestic sphere. I imagine that if you viewed a similar list of male advertising icons, it might go cars, cars, cars, Viagra, deodorant, alcohol, alcohol, cars. Not exactly a flattering or comprehensive portrait of masculinity, eh?

There’s a chicken or egg argument in the advertising world that goes something like this: Can advertising compel social change and should it? Or does social change drive the evolution of advertising?

Bottom line, advertising is about…the bottom line. Advertisers try to create campaigns that resonate with how people currently feel to convince them that the product “understands” them. To that end, advertisers try to reflect the “truths” of their target audience. That said, pushing the social envelope can benefit an advertiser if they correctly predict the direction the winds are blowing. In those cases, the visibility an advertising campaign brings to an issue can function as a propelling force, both bolstering a movement and selling a product.

Case 1: Huggies – The original Huggies “Dad Test” campaign generated some controversy when some commenters argued that it insulted fathers by suggesting parental incompetence. The gist of the spot was that leaving babies with their fathers was the ultimate test of a diaper’s dependability, with the clear subtext that dads are buffoons who don’t know how to take care of their children and consequently need a superior product to keep it together.

While the spot is indeed insulting, Huggies’ market is not stay-at-home dads, or even engaged equal-partner dads. Huggies is going after the moms who do feel like their husbands are either unwilling or unable to do half the parenting (whether that’s true or not), and unfortunately, that’s still a big market. If the ad didn’t resonate with enough moms, it would never have made it on the air, so in this case, Huggies placed the right bet.

While the brand could bet on the social movement towards egalitarian diaper-changing, they’ve correctly guessed that as a whole, society is not quite there yet, and the “dad incompetency” message is still effective for now. Here’s to hoping that as Millennials start reproducing, the monetary momentum behind this kind of media dad-bashing loses steam.

Case 2: Target – After getting slammed for donating to anti-gay organizations a few years ago, Target has done an about face (at least, on the surface) with their wedding registry print ad that features a gay couple. While Target certainly risks alienating a substantial percentage of the population with an ad like this, their brand managers have judged that the marriage equality movement is gaining enough traction that they want to be on the right side of history. Simultaneously, and ad like this does tremendous work for said movement, as a national brand like Target (like Ellen for JC Penny), validates gays and lesbians as a meaningful and valued segment of America in a public, widespread, visually impactful way.

It’s not so hard to imagine these cases reversed. Huggies could have decided that equal childcare was close enough on the horizon to get a head start on appealing to those parents. Target could have decided enough Americans are still anti-gay that this ad was too risky. But brands walk a very tricky balance, and the best ones choose the issues on which they can be an early supporter without sticking their necks too far out of the mainstream.


About Emily Heist Moss

Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works at a tech start-up. She's a serious reader and a semi-pro TV buff. She writes about gender, media, and politics at her blog, Rosie Says. (Follow her: @rosiesaysblog, find Rosie Says on Facebook). 


  1. Normally with effect/affect, effect is the noun and affect is the verb. The only exception is “effect change.”

  2. wellokaythen says:

    I’ll be “that guy” here and ask:

    In the title, do you mean “affect” change or “effect” change?

    It’s not a small matter. To affect change means that you influence changes that are already happening, or you make some impact, however small, on something already there. To effect change is much more dramatic, because it means you are actually the driving force making change happen. To affect change is pretty easy, but effecting change takes a lot of power.

  3. “I imagine that if you viewed a similar list of male advertising icons, it might go cars, cars, cars, Viagra, deodorant, alcohol, alcohol, cars. Not exactly a flattering or comprehensive portrait of masculinity, eh?”

    Mr. Clean, Brawny, Green Giant, Juan Valdez, and Mr. Whipple are all domestic male icons that might make the list. And sure, there would probably be a Captain Morgan.

    And, I do not know how they came up with their list, but they left out Wendy’s. Which reminds me: Colonel Sanders and Ronald McDonald.


    • wellokaythen says:

      Apparently in the 1990’s Ronald McDonald was the most recognizable “person” to all the world’s children, probably in the world. Something like 95% of 5 year olds surveyed on the planet could say his name when shown a picture of him. I fear for the future if he is the global masculine example.

  4. hmmm well done on the Huggies analysis – it is sometimes difficult to get people to realize that they are not analysing ad targets correctly – you have to identify the decision maker being targeted to understand the tactics being used.

    I would suggest that many many ads are more aspirational than attunement (understanding as you put it).
    On the basic question – can advertising be used as a change agent… while anything is possible, the return on marketing expenditure has to be there, and getting out in front of the population you are after is pretty risky. It is much more likely with a new product class than anything else. Bear in mind the current control of expenditures in the typical consumer.

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