Women in commercials -- Ladies have come a long way in TV ads, but there's still room for improvement

By Benjamin Svetkey
March 18, 1994 at 05:00 AM EST

You know the ad: that ubiquitous Diet Coke TV spot in which a battery of women huddle at their office window to ogle the shirtless construction worker sipping soda below. The women arch their eyebrows, flare their nostrils, bite their lips, and engage in the sort of horn-dog drooling one usually associates with Jell-O-wrestling night at the frat house.

Ladies, puh-leeze.

As if relations between men and women weren’t baffling enough in the 1990s, Madison Avenue is developing a new strain of reverse-sexism advertising. Like Diet Pepsi’s ”Girl Watchers” campaign in the late 1960s and National Airlines’ ”Fly Me” spots in the early 1970s, today’s hormone-driven commercials make their sales pitches with bare skin and snickering double entendres — the only difference this time is that it’s the guys who are being slobbered over.

Take the recent spot for Hyundai’s Elantra. Two business gals are waiting for valet parking at a fancy restaurant. As different men pull up in a variety of flashy sports cars, the women snigger about how they ”must be overcompensating for a shortcoming.” But when a hunky dude motors up in a sensible Elantra, they get all weak in the knees. ”I wonder what he’s got under the hood,” sighs one.

Other ads continue to push the boundaries in similar role-reversal territory, with women triumphing in a man’s world: Federal Express’ spot in which a female underling upstages her male boss, Saturn’s ad in which a sports car is test-driven by a female jet pilot, and the Campbell’s Soup commercial in which silver medalist Nancy Kerrigan hip-checks male hockey players.

The admen behind these power-babe commercials surely didn’t intend it, but their creations have pinpointed a curious contradiction in the sexual politics of the ’90s — at least as played out on television. How come it’s okay for women to behave like lecherous, pants-chasing scuzzbuckets while men get carted off for Sensitivity Reprogramming merely for thinking the words ”My wife, I think I’ll keep her”? Why isn’t the pectorally gifted model (his real name, no joke, is Lucky Vanous, and he’s been milking his 15 seconds of fame for everything it’s worth, including a puffed-up profile on Entertainment Tonight) parading topless in the Diet Coke ad considered every bit as sexist and offensive as, say, Brooke Shields cooing about her Calvins?

”If a guy slaps a woman on TV, people get pissed off,” says art director Bill Halladay of the advertising firm Backer Spielvogel Bates, who cocreated the Hyundai spot with writer Jim Jolliffe. ”But if a woman knees a guy in the groin, everyone applauds.” Similarly with sex: ”It’s okay to show women lusting after men, but it’s politically incorrect to show men lusting after women.”

Big surprise, but the Hyundai and Diet Coke ads haven’t touched off any mass uprisings of jock-strap-burning males protesting their new status as advertising sex objects. ”Being objectified just isn’t as threatening to men as it is to women,” says Jolliffe. ”We think it’s kinda flattering.” And in fact, the commercials appear to be working: Hyundai’s ad-awareness rate (the percentage of viewers who remember a product’s commercials) has doubled since the spots started running in October. Diet Coke won’t reveal any numbers but says its ads have been getting a ”very positive” reaction.

Naturally, not everyone is thrilled with the rise of neo-beefcake. ”These commercials are a novelty, like Chippendales,” says Diane Welsh, head of the National Organization for Women’s New York chapter. ”But they don’t advance women’s rights at all. They just perpetuate the same patriarchal, sexist thinking.”

”I think commercials like these are a form of antifeminist backlash,” offers feminist professor and author bell hooks. ”They continue the same old sexist arrangement, only this time with women on top. The revolution wasn’t about turning women into pseudo-men.” Hard-core feminist Andrea Dworkin gives the commercials a thumbs-down as well: ”The whole thing is an insult to women,” she says. ”The women in the Diet Coke ad are passive and, frankly, rather stupid. There’s no reason to identify with them.” And besides, ”most women have better things to do during our office break time.”

In fairness, when they brainstormed their spot, Halladay and Jolliffe had a more pressing challenge to deal with than gender issues and sexual politics. ”Let’s face it, Hyundai isn’t known for making the sexiest cars in the world,” explains Jolliffe. ”We had to find a way to make a sensible car seem sexy. So we had fun with the idea of a big hunky guy driving a Hyundai. And for a long time there’s been this notion that men who drive flashy sports cars have, ah, short virilities. So we turned that around. If that’s true, men who drive Hyundais must be really, ah, well equipped.”

”Our commercial and the Diet Coke ad are completely honest and in synch with what we know about the women who work in our office,” adds Halladay. ”The women we showed it to thought it was a howl. They identified with it. They were like, ‘How did you know what we talk about when guys aren’t around?”’

Of course, there’s one thing about these new ads that’s as traditional and patriarchal as a bikinis-on-the-beach Spuds MacKenzie spot — they’re all produced by men.