4 Major Ad Campaigns That Have the Wrong Idea of Marketing to Women

Out of all the things America is known for, its use of advertising may seem like an insignificant blurb. Compared to the seeming heroism of NFL football and the conglomeration of ice cold Coca Cola, American advertising is rarely focused on as a culminating part of the country. Yet, whether it is a billboard in Time Square or an ad in the local paper, the advertising industry has a hold on Americans. Consumerism has come to define us and our enormous retail industry accounts for over half of the advertisements published annually. However, some of those are much more effective than others. These four ad campaigns, while presumably had good intentions, completely have the wrong idea when it comes to marketing to women. Not only do these brands set unrealistic expectations, but they cross the line between appropriate and downright wrong.


Guess has taken the United States by storm, as their claim to an all-American mentality goes hand in hand with their number one manufactured product; blue jeans. In an attempt to maintain this selective image, their most recent campaign features three very “American” looking girls. The three girls are what one would label as “blonde bombshells,” which is an extremely derogatory term in itself. This persona has emerged as what is beautiful in American culture, and Guess has exemplified it to the fullest. These models are all posing seductively, puckering full lips with rounded breasts exposed, as if to say “These are how American women look in jeans.” Yet, contrary to the message of this display, America is a melting pot of thousands of cultures and ethnicities.

The all-American blonde is a stereotype that is highly overrated. What claims to be an American brand should represent the true makeup of the country, not just what society and the media has carefully crafted it to be. Blue jeans are a product that should appeal to everyone, as their sheer versatility allows for undistinguished wear. An advertisement like this will lose big revenue in the female department, as the “bombshell” look of the models will intimidate women. Jeans are generally marketed upon the mentality of “fun and fancy free.” However, upon seeing this advertisement, that appeal will be immediately diminished.

This image only features two models, but is also in the new Guess campaign. It appeared in the April issue of Teen Vogue.
This image only features two models, but is also in the new Guess campaign. It appeared in the April issue of Teen Vogue.

Victoria’s Secret

Possibly one of the most controversial brands known to America, no company has gathered more backlash than the lingerie conglomerate, Victoria’s Secret. With their long line of gorgeous “angels” that pose for thousands of ad campaigns, catalogs, and even parade down a catwalk wearing enormous glittery angel wings, they are definitely displaying their brand to the American public. While their lingerie is unquestionably racy, the real concern is on their teen aimed spin-off, PINK. PINK is marketed to high-school to college aged girls and even manages to scoop up a large amount of middle-schoolers. This being considered, their products should be age appropriate. Although they do sell basic bras, a myriad of bathing suits and are steadily contributing to the athletic clothes craze, a recent focus has been cast on their underwear.

While their yoga pants often have “LOVE PINK” plastered across the bottom, which is relatively distracting, it is innocent enough. However, some of PINK’s underwear has been adorned with sayings such as “Take It Off,” “Lets Get A Room ,” and “I Get Around.” Not only are these messages tasteless, but they are far from what a 15 year old should be flashing to her friends as she changes for gym. This is could not be farther from what is appropriate to market to young girls, let alone adults. Women should feel empowered and hold the knowledge and ability to make responsible decisions about intimacy. Wearing these demeaning messages around all day may seem playful, but they are extremely discriminatory. Sayings such as these cast a negative light on women as well as make a mockery of intimacy. There is nothing about these underwear that offer feeling of security or comfort, which is why the undergarment was invented to begin with.

These are just a few of the inappropriate messages displayed on PINK underwear.
These are just a few of the inappropriate messages displayed on PINK underwear.


Covergirl has begun featuring celebrities in their campaigns that stray from the American definition of beauty; tall, blonde, and the ideal proportion of thin yet buxom. Sofia Vergara of Modern Family is a new Covergirl and has presumably been used to play up her Latin- American heritage and natural sex appeal. Pink has also been featured in Covergirl ads, as her unconventional beauty is most likely intended to send a message that “All looks are beautiful.” However, while the aspect of using women from all ethnic and age backgrounds is profoundly refreshing, the fact of the of matter remains; these women are celebrities. Famous women, although differentiating in their looks, maintain a common thread through their nearly always flawless appearance. Many dole out tens of thousands of dollars annually to teams of makeup artists and hair stylists to keep their image of perfection up and running.

Although Covergirl has diversity in mind, the message they are sending with their makeup is that it will transform your beauty regime and therefore outward appearance into that of a celebrity. This challenge is nearly an impossible feat to pursue for most Americans with an average income. Pink, Vergara and all other celebrities featured in Covergirl advertisements are extremely striking women. However, they would most likely be the first to admit that their porcelain skin and shiny hair definitely do not come naturally, and certainly not through the use of drug-store makeup. While Covergirl has only the intent of selling their products in mind, there is a chance they do not realize that they are attempting to sell a lie. There is no conceivable way that regular girls and women will look like Sofia Vergara in Covergirl Blast Lipstick, when even Vergara herself requires assistance from makeup artists. The excessive airbrushing coupled with the use of seemingly flawless celebrity women just leaves consumers feeling defeated before they even try.

Sofia Vergara wearing Covergirl Blast lipstick.
Sofia Vergara wearing Covergirl Blast lipstick.


While Dove rocked the world of advertising a few years back when it debuted its “real women” campaign, companies have yet to follow in those groundbreaking footsteps until earlier this year. Aerie, a tween-teenaged underwear brand nestled under the umbrella of the American Eagle Corporation, recently released a series of ads known as “Aerie REAL.” These images depict young models in their undergarments and claim that no retouching has occurred. While this claim is seemingly true and believable, these models most likely range in age from 15-18 and their average weights appear to hover just along the border of 100 pounds. Girls with these proportions do not require retouching to begin with, which is where Aerie’s clever marketing emerges. By dwarfing the significance of natural beauty and relying strictly on technicalities, they are able to disclose that these images represent girls as their true selves. Although a legitimate statement, the advertisements are still an inaccurate portrayal of how most adolescents look in a bra. By using models that fit into the American media mold of young and thing, they conveniently require no refinishing.

This marketing move by Aerie is only prompting girls to feel more insecure about their body images. When potential consumers peruse by the store while shopping with friends, they will see the huge poster of what is labeled as a “real” model. Yet, what Aerie intended to spark a sense of excitement and relatedness will undoubtedly produce a self-demeaning train of thought. These young teens will think to themselves, “Wow, that girl isn’t even retouched and she still looks better than me.” This is unquestionably an advertising backfire.

This is one of the many advertisements that make up Aerie's new campaign.
This is one of the many advertisements that make up Aerie’s new campaign.

Why Do They Do This?

The looming question still remains; what prompts companies to approach women’s advertisement from such an uninformed and seemingly sexist angle? It could be due to the belief of the age old tactic that “sex sells,” regardless of the market gender. This is definitely the case for the Guess ad, as the posing models seem to cry for a release from chauvinistic standards.

It could also be an attempt to appeal to the younger generation, as well as the increasing technological and typographic forefront. This aids in explaining Victoria’s Secret’s failed endeavor to channel the teen-like terminology and dialogue characteristic of social media. The back of their PINK underwear appeared more like a “sext” gone wrong than a fun and flirty undergarment.

Covergirl advertisers visibly believed that a celebrity spokesperson would attract both consumer attention and sales. Their bright idea was the most innocent as well as potentially successful, due to the overwhelming American obsession with those in the spotlight. Yet the celebrities’ allure of perfection ultimately resulted in demise, as it is an overwhelming feat for any makeup consumer to parallel the look of someone who is deemed as one of the “most beautiful” women in the world.

Lastly, Aerie’s approach to their REAL campaign was slightly underhanded and with further analysis, their disingenuous motives ring true. Indeed, their claim that their images have received no retouching is verifiably true. However, by utilizing girls that require no retouching to begin with, they coast by the ideals of true beauty and leave tweens and teens feeling more self-conscious than they were with the previously retouched lies.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. The worst possible ad for women would be one where a female is seen to demonstrate some kind of personal responsibility or sense of humour.

    Imagine the angst such a precedent would engender.

  2. Joanne Woods

    Wow ads certainly are outrageous but interesting at the same time.

  3. Natalie Sheppard

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention American Apparel, their ads always stir up controversy.

    • Yes, I thought about that! However, the controversy of their campaign is already so heavily publicized, that I wanted to raise awareness for some that many may not think of.

  4. jeremymyers86

    Nothing personal considering I don’t know you. But, I feel terrible for anyone who expects or wants mass media–in any form–to show any semblance of integrity or humanism. They have one goal. To cultivate and then sell an image. They aren’t solely to blame. They pander to a majority of Americans by simply giving them what they want and then convincing them they need it. Make sense? Probably not. But hey. This is a comment and not a dissertation. Anywho, the majority of women whom are strongly influenced by these types of marketing campaigns. Are not thinkers. I’m not afraid to say. Despite being a 27 year old college junior. I run into young ladies more often than not, that, “don’t like to think about hard stuff”. This is coming from 18-24 year old women that take women and gender study classes and gobble it up like its the laws of God, brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses’ wife that has recently been liberated by feminist movement time travelers. Then, when asked why they feel what they feel they respond with the rhetoric of a textbook and aforementioned statement about thought. All this does is hurt the cause of fair equality and treatment of women due to the fact that the actual thinking women become the minority and are forced to question themselves for not wanting what these companies are selling. I will relent that men are the same side of a different coin. I will give you credit personally, simply for the fact that you have the where-with-all to at least acknowledge the schemes of these businesses. Although, fashionista might hurt your rep.

    • I appreciate your feedback. However, I do not appreciate your belittlement of women and your overall characterization of the 18-24 year old age group as unintelligent and incapable of understanding feminism and gender studies. Also, it isn’t out of the ordinary for a female to want a national campaign that is demeaning towards females to stop advertising the way it is. So, you don’t have to feel terrible for me for wanting the media to stop oppressing my gender, but thanks for the thought. Unless you’re a 27 year old college junior majoring in gender studies, I think you should be careful of what you say. Nonetheless, I agree with the notion that women do question themselves for not wanting what the media is pushing upon them. But then again, this self-questioning is a good thing, as they are realizing that they are better than what they are being portrayed as in the media. Thanks again for your input.

      • nope, sorry, he’s right==sad but true–lets call a spade a spade!!

    • this is so sad but so true!!!

  5. Mary Awad

    The media is extremely manipulating and it’s really very sad. But I don’t see it stopping anytime soon, which is even worse.

  6. Elaina Chastain

    I agree with this whole-heartedly! Especially with the Victoria’s Secret merchandise. Is it absolutely necessary to put “I Get Around” on the butt?? Not at all. Even with the Aerie campaign, stating that the model isn’t photoshopped doesn’t make a difference. Showing a standard size girl, or even a multitude of difference sized women, would help more. Very nice article!!!

  7. Zenobia Perron

    Ads create concept maps in us as sure as Stories, do and in the same way: overlays in the mind, to deal with society and self: TV and Ads send a universal concept and becomes fashion, a language of its own – tailored to women, to make them as all necrotic, and hopes not be ostracized—they control the schema and the precepts of many

  8. Emaloo

    I support Aerie’s attempts to show real women. If a girl looks at an untouched photo and is still self-conscious what can really be done about that? I think Aerie is taking a step in the right direction. I don’t see how it can be harmful for them to promote self-love.

    • Thanks for your feedback. I agree that they are taking that step, but should be showcasing a better variety of girls, not just the ones that are already thin. Interesting point though!

  9. Very nice article overall. If you were to ever write a follow-up to this article, the latest Veet commercial would be great to analyze.

    Re: GUESS, while I wish ads featured the “melting pot” that is America, I’m skeptical the lack of racial or size diversity in their ads will hurt sales. It’s considered upscale, and upscale is glamorous. Whiteness and thinness is prized for a number of reasons, and natural blonde hair is rare, so it’s considered very special. Moreover, people tend to want more wealth, and that ad is like a daydream. Anyone deviating from this too much, unfortunately, is no longer considered aspirational or an “all-American” boy or girl.

    So, at $80+ GUESS jeans aren’t selling fun at the park but fun at a private island resort. The nature of glamour means the object appears detached but simultaneously obtainable. Maybe you can’t afford a trip to the Maldives, but wear Guess jeans, and you’ll look like you can. Advertisers prey on self-esteem issues by making the woman envy/admire the “blonde bombshells” and purchase the jeans. Now the buyer is enviable to others.

    Sure, the ad might not appeal to women who’re fine with $20 jeans, but I can only assume that’s not the woman Guess wants to attract. It’s like how Abercrombie & Fitch didn’t want to be associated with “Jersey Shore.” Or how Tom Ford didn’t want a billionaire wearing his suits because he didn’t want to cater to heavier people. Profits are important, yeah, but so is the company’s image.

    Anyway, enough rambling. This was a great subject.

  10. I feel like the problems pointed out in these ad campaigns are pervasive throughout American advertising, not necessarily in these brands. With the exception of Aerie, which I hadn’t heard of, these are also all wildly successful companies. I’d be interested in a companion piece about ad campaigns (like Dove’s) that marketed to women in the way we feel they should, and how those were received culturally and in terms of business.

  11. You make a lot of excellent points, especially about the Cover Girl campaign and its use of selective diversity. The issue of Victoria’s Secret underwear with suggestive (or overt) messages printed on them is more complicated for me, because on the one hand, I’m entirely in favor of women wearing what they want, but on the other, I don’t think fifteen-year-olds changing for gym (great example) are really cognizant of the message they’re sending with their underwear picks, and the company is hardly going to tell fifteen-year-olds that they’re too young to buy pairs of underwear with “I Get Around” printed on them. But I have a lot of conflicting feelings about VS in general.

    I also appreciated your mention of Aerie’s very careful selection of picture-perfect models in its “untouched photos” campaign. This is as much a trick as retouching photos, and is in fact far worse for teenage girls who see untouched photos that are still perfect and then must deal with the blow to their self-image. It is an ongoing challenge to support a culture of self-acceptance in teenagers, no matter their gender, and campaigns like these only make it more difficult. This is an excellent article overall, thank you for posting it.

  12. mccartyj

    This is a fantastic article! Have you ever considered one that does the opposite? We’re quick to criticize brands, but slower to praise. For example, Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign does well (although the Victoria Secret knock-off campaign does not.)

  13. Good read! The sexualization and belittlement of women in the media is disturbing, and is a very real problem in 2014. Victoria’s Secret adverts and campaigns have always bothered me; as a woman with a chest too large for their bras, I feel something is wrong with me when they neither show women who look like me, nor sell my size.
    I do think that, at the very least, Covergirl’s use of stars like Ellen Degeneres and Queen Latifah shows that beauty is something that is more than just skin deep. Their ad campaign isn’t perfect, but ultimately, all companies advertise to sell product.

    Again, good, thought-provoking read!

  14. Your analysis is very striking and certainly true, and it may even go further than selling products or appealing to younger generations. These companies deliberately compose a female image that cannot be attained in real life, even the models themselves have stated this, notably Cindy Crawford, who said “Cindy Crawford doesn’t look like Cindy Crawford,” the point being that most of the ads are doctored with computer graphics and not just on-site make-up professionals. And in the end this creates a general low self-esteem for women, which begs the question of whether or not the whole thing has been constructed to perpetuate a patriarchal society? I think there might some truth to this, and it is very disturbing to think this is the case. But even more complex than that is the fact that some of the CEO’s that run these companies and ad agencies are women…try wrapping your head around that one, for me it’s difficult to do so, but something definitely has to be changed here; awareness to all this is a good start. So, thanks for this article, I hope more people get introduced to this issue because of it.

  15. Taketomb

    I really think Dove is a load of crap. Well, not their main point, but how they arrive there. I recently saw the Dove beauty patch commercial. Yes, I get it, you have been beautiful all along, and this placebo experiment has proved it. However, I feel like the women in the commercial are either actresses or have been paid to perform and react the way they did. It just seemed soooooo staged.

    And Aerie is another thing. While they have started this new campaign where they feature normal girls, these girls aren’t normal white american teens. Just because you are using models that are perhaps 2 pegs below the likes of certified underwear models, doesn’t mean that they represent normal women. These are girls that would certainly be deemed pretty. Show us some unconventional looks, like overweight, scars, etc.

  16. Dee J

    This is a good topic for an article because all women can relate to watching these commercials and having the same thoughts about them. I for one think that “sex sells” it always has and it always will no matter the brand or the type of product being sold. That being said, I don’t think that there will be any changes anytime soon. I think that if there was a change and if they decided to show real actual women, these brands and products would lose their appeal. Maybe I’ve gotten so used to the idea of ads being this way and that is the only way I can image them but I don’t think they would be as appealing or interesting to me if they were normal (wow, your article just made realize that this is how I think). In the end its really all about selling a product in the form of selling an image or a lifestyle. Advertising is one of the most cutthroat industries its all about the money!

  17. I love this article! Everything you say is completely right! I had not actually thought about all those things in that way, but I will definitely be paying more attention now! Great article!

  18. I think I can safely say that no one truly loves any advertisement. A lot of them are often tacky, offensive, hyper-sexualized and just downright stupid. I agree with your statements wholeheartedly. Have you ever thought about looking at the male side? I know it would be another thing to talk about white male privilege, but I think its definitely important to note that these issues can and do apply to men. For instance you talk about the Covergirl brand using celebrities and selective ethnicities. A few years ago (I think) there was an ad for Gillette razors that featured predominantly white male celebrities. While you can argue that covergirl is make up and they’re falsely advertising their product, the same can be said about the razor commercial saying if you use this razor you’ll have a great mustache like Andre3000 or Adrian Brody.

    The sad truth is that advertising is meant to sell an idealized perfection something that can only be attainable if we “buy this product”. Like I said above, even though it is not as apparent or frequent as it is for females, it’s also important to acknowledge the fact that the offense caused by ads can be attributed to everyone they are marketing.

    Great article though. Well done!

  19. CriticalOtaku

    Really enjoyed your article! While I can appreciate the efforts of some of these companies to make women feel more comfortable in their own skin, it definitely can comes across as under-handed at times (as you noted with the aerie ads) or just really catering more to men’s fantasies as opposed to women’s sense of security. I mean even when I see the cover of something like Victoria’s Secret, I feel like the image of an attractive girl appeals a lot more to me than to, say, my lady-friends or any of the women in my family

  20. Perhaps the best course of action in light of the hollow, manipulative efforts of corporate advertising is to reject it altogether and drop it from the collective consciousness.

  21. I recently saw a Victoria’s Secret ad on TV where the only woman featured was fully clothed the whole time! It was an ad for a free bag after spending a certain amount of money at the store. I wondered why they chose to depict this woman dressed so casually — she was wearing a casual grey t-shirt and jeans, and it’s the only Victoria’s Secret commercial I’ve ever seen that doesn’t feature half-naked women. I wish they would advertise like that more often, but I suppose half-nakedness is inevitable for a company that sells mostly bras and underwear.

  22. The advertising industry is having devastating impacts on the perception of female beauty especially. It’s extremely disturbing on a lot of different levels.

  23. I just want to begin by thanking you for speaking out on what I believe is an important issue. I feel as though many people in our society have become so numb to what media is feeding us, they don’t realize the damage they are causing. However, advertising companies know exactly what they are doing. I believe what scares me the most is how the target age of the purchaser is becoming younger and younger. What’s even more bothersome is what these children and teens are being fed as acceptable and desirable. Sex should not be used to sell products to such a young population. I personally believe no company should use sex to sell their product. I feel as though it is a cop-out on the company’s part. Everyone knows that sex sells, so they take the easy approach to bring in more money. If more purchasers would educate themselves and realize that they are being played, I wonder if they would think twice before they purchased something that sexualized women or children to such a disturbing degree. A question that must be addressed is: what is wrong with our society that it is okay with selling such explicit adds to children and such lies to adults? I know it’s all about money, but no one is paying any attention to the detrimental effects these types of adds are causing throughout society. If women and now children are continuously sexualized, then we will continue to be seen as sexual objects that exist for the sole purpose of pleasing others. This issue is much more dangerous than people are willing to admit. So again, thank you for sharing such profound thoughts. Hopefully those who read your post will think twice before they purchase another product from any of these companies. Furthermore, I hope your post will make people look at future advertisements more critically.

  24. Its nuts what our society puts out there to shape and mold the minds of the consumers. I mean each and every one of the models in pictures for Guess or Victoria’s Secret have all been visually enhanced into something unattainable. I love when models and celebrities speak out about the photos they’ve taken and how when they finally get to see them they don’t even recognize themselves. Come on, lets just love ourselves for who we are which is women that come in different shapes, sizes and colors. Also the whole idea that panties have to literally send the message that you want to have sex is so so so sad. Have they ever heard the saying “Your audience is only as smart as you allow them to be”? They must think everyone is pretty stupid. Just needed to throw that in there haha.

  25. Anna Williams

    Very interesting article.

    I’m not sure if in America they do this but in England we are constantly bombarded with hair ads/commercials staring pretty women celebrities. Usually advertising a box of £5 hair dye which of course these A Listers used on their hair /sarcasm. That reminds me of your point about Covergirl using female celebs to promote products (which they evidently have never used).

    I think it is good to use ‘real women’ in adverts but advertisers/marketers are obsessed with selling ‘the dream’ – ya know their thinking is ‘if you use this product you’ll look as great as this model!’. Not everyone is taken in by this, but a lot are unfortunately – sad but true.

  26. I find the Aerie REAL campaign to be very interesting. Growing up, my “ideal” body in bathing suits or lingerie was one of a Victoria’s Secret model. Now- seeing these “natural” girls plastered on billboards and shopping bags is a good start- but nowhere near where we should be. Sure, these girls don’t need to be retouched, but they still are VERY thin. I know people say that in the past, a larger figure was a sign of wealth, and now it seems to be the opposite. People are starving themselves, glorifying eating disorders, paying for trainers and diet plans just to be the “ideal” shape. America is changing, girls are growing up more quickly because the media is forcing them to. If advertisements are trying to show the world what REAL girls look like, then they need to put real girls in their advertisements. Models should be females that have stretch marks and cellulite and blemishes that the majority of women have, because that is REAL and that is normal. Not picture-perfect celebrities, ridiculously proportioned Victoria’s Secret angels, or girls that don’t have to be retouched, but are still very thin. Sex sells, but if ads are targeting young people, shouldn’t they be able to see someone similar to themselves wearing the clothes?

  27. While I agree that many of the marketing strategies geared toward women can have unrealistic and even insulting morals, many of the chosen advertisements were not the best representation of this. Advertisements are geared to make their target audiences want to buy their product, so creating advertisements with well known celebrities is a good marketing strategy. Examining a basic make up brand does not do the best at exemplifying this; there are many overly-retouched brands that do deserve such criticism.

  28. Vittoria Pellicano

    Do you know where I can find more articles/ infomation about this topic?

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