Mad World: We Got Game, But Our Ads Don't

Kelsey Wallace
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When it comes to women and sports, we've got a long way to go before we reach the promised land of gender equity. Still, when you consider that Title IX just passed in 1972 and that we've got some seriously kickass women athletes to look up to in the wide world of sports today, well, it could be worse. So how are we doing when it comes to women, sports, and advertising? Well, let's start on a high note:

Remember this Nike ad? It first aired in 1995, and even though that was 15 years ago, it is still the gold standard in women's athletic advertisements (if someone has an example of an ad campaign that's done a better job since this one, please leave it in the comments section). This spot is positive all the way, without glossing over the marginalized experiences of many young women athletes in our culture. Compare it to this Under Armour ad, which takes a similar approach with less of an explicit message (and less diversity):

To me, the Nike spot makes more of an impact, though both are pretty good. Of course, Nike and Under Armour are working from an advantage here because these ads are about young girls playing sports, and who doesn't want that? Things get a little dicier when the target audience matures into adulthood:

OK, I get that this ad comes with good intentions. Athletes should feel proud of their physiques, and they shouldn't let beauty norms get in the way of that. Agreed! But! (Butt!) The woman in this ad is fragmented, reduced to a specific, sexualized body part in order to make a point about sports culture. I can't help but feel that the way this posterior is framed is making a statement that reinforces some of that culture as opposed to challenging it – because the focus is still on a body part. Also, this ad pits athletic women against skinny women as if someone couldn't be both (or as if bigger women need to resent smaller women). Still, the ad is kinda funny, and we women have certainly been subjected to a lot worse when it comes to sports and the size of our asses. Behold:

Yeah. Those Reebok Easytone ads leave a buttload (pun!) to be desired when it comes to representations of athletic women. Because, of course, when you boil everything down, women only exercise to conform to looking a certain way (firm yet small butt, firm yet medium-sized boobs, flat stomach, etc.). If you weren't sure of that fact, just listen to the creepy mansplaining narrator at the end of the ad. This ad, and many others along similar lines, sends a sexist message (exercise, fatty!) masquerading as helpful (we just want to improve your workouts!).

Sports advertising that targets women is rarely about sports. Instead, it's about what the advertisers want us to think sports can do for us. It's about selling a lifestyle where we're sporty people, and sometimes that's OK (when the lifestyle involves physical fitness and athletic ability) but usually that lifestyle involves the same tired tropes that so often come with women's ads: beauty, looks, weight loss, youth, beauty, nice butt, guy attention, beauty, etc. Even when the ad pretends to be about rejecting conventional beauty myths, what usually happens is that those exact beauty myths are reinforced (but now you can get the look from athletic gear instead of cosmetics!). Check out this Asics ad for an example:

Hey ladies, we don't want you to get your thin body and your pretty hair from cosmetics, we want you to get them from our line of athletic beauty products! Still get them though, because we'd hate for you to look gross. And of course, all athletic women are thin and pretty. No need to challenge that completely false notion.

I've been looking around the interwebs for a while, as well as calling for help on our Facebook and Twitter feeds, and I'm having a tough time finding much in the way of women's sports ads that doesn't inadvertently reinforce sexist notions somehow. Even in the ads that I didn't include here, there seems to be quite a bit of one-step-forward-two-steps-back (yes women can play sports but only through the male gaze and only if they are young and thin and showing a lot of skin) going on. Some of the better examples are at the local level, like this one for a New England sporting goods chain (via redingtonpete), but even it pits a hot woman against schlubby guys – not entirely progressive:

What would you sporty feminists (and I know you're out there) like to see in women's sports advertising? Are you happy with the current offerings, or do you think more could be done here? Are athletic companies striking out when it comes to marketing to women and girls? Or have they scored a touchdown? Who will win in the shootout between sporting goods companies and women athletes? Are these ads making those crucial three-pointers, or has their shot clock run out? And can you come up with some more sports-related metaphors to apply to this situation? Just do it.

OH_Logo.jpgThis project was made possible in part by a grant from Oregon Humanities (OH), a statewide nonprofit organization and an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, which funds OH's grant program. Any views, findings, and conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Oregon Humanities or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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10 Comments Have Been Posted

Not all games are for girls.

I do mixed martial arts, and I'd sure like it if I could find proper equipment for this full contact sport. Despite being 5'9", I'm not man shaped. What is out there that's designed for women makes sure everyone knows it because it's PINK! There are definitely still areas of athletics reserved for men. Some middle ground between cross dressing and super girly girl would be wonderful.

No thanks, pinkos!

I totally agree with you, Katherine. Growing up playing softball (which is a totally popular sport and therefore athletes should have many options) I had a tough time finding non-pink equipment (or stuff without flowers, butterflies, etc.). It's like advertisers can't handle a woman playing sports unless they "feminize" the whole deal by adding pink and stupid princess accessories. No thanks.

I think I'm old enough that

I think I'm old enough that I grew up before the pink princess explosion, but I grew up playing softball, and never had any trouble finding non-feminine equipment. Even now, as an adult, I don't have trouble finding exercise gear that isn't pink. I'm talking cleats, softball gloves, golf gloves, tank tops with built-in sports bras, you name it.

Beyond the US

I agree with Kate about "I am an athlete". Nike seems to be the company that gets it right most often
Case in point: A few years back, when Mexican runner Ana Guevara won gold at 400 meters at the 2003 World Championships in Athletics, and later a silver medal for the same event in the Athens Olympics, Nike seized the opportunity to launch a pretty positive campaign around her:

Loose transcription/translation:
Man: Women can cook, they can take care of the children, they can clean the house, they can dress up, they can go to the marke-
Announcer: A great moment for Mexico! Ana Guevara!
Man: can run, they can compete, they can travel to the moon, they can be presidents of big companies, they can be artists...
Caption: Thank you, Ana. Congratulations.

But my favorite part of the campaign were the billboards and print ads (of which I've found little trace on the internet). One of them featured the same man as the TV ad, and another two featured skinny little boys, brown and reading as working class to most mexicans, with wide, proud smiles and captions like <a href="">"My hero is a chick"</a> or (personal fave) "Tell me I run like a girl."

While not directly related

While not directly related to advertising, one thing I've been thinking about a lot lately is how exercise and athleticism is pitched to young women versus older women. For young women, it's all about sports, sports, sports, both in school and in advertising. And if you happen not to be particularly interested in sports, you are left out of the picture a bit in terms of how to have an athletic, fit lifestyle.

However, when you get older, the focus becomes much more on individualized, gym-type exercise, like aerobics or treadmills or yoga or elliptical machines. And sadly, that comes with an "I'm working out to stay trim" mentality, both in how it's portrayed in advertising and (obnoxiously enough) among those who teach aerobics, own health clubs, etc. I'm really getting sick of hearing my aerobics instructors talk about how we're all here being tortured so we'll look great for our mens!

I think if we offered aerobic dance-type activities and more gym-like things in PE to younger girls, girls like me who aren't into the sporting would learn how to be healthy and enjoy physical activity at younger ages, and we might start to recognize it as fun exercise instead of horrible torture that we endure for smaller butts. I think it would be easier to get physical activity into people's lives more if we offered a wide range of options for women of all ages (I also think there should be more sport opportunities for women after high school/college, even though I'm not really interested in joining in).

I think on average, Nike and

I think on average, Nike and Gatorade are pretty good about including women athletes in their general ads that show athletes straight-up competing. And in a lot of the ads, they don't make a big deal about including the women, nor do they show them in a less competitive light than their male counterparts. They're athletes first, men and women second. I've always liked that. (Except for that series of Gatorade ads where people had, like, orange and blue sweat. That was freaky.)

I am not sure where this fits, but here is a semi-sport related add from Canada. Besides the immense national pride held for our womens olympic hockey team, this add plays on gender stereotypes, but doesn't 'sex up' the female athletes, perhaps, because some of the women on the team are 'older' or mothers. I like how it reinforces good food choices for people on the go, instead of fake food supplements or energy drinks and the like.

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