Dubious Ethics: Sexism in Alcohol Advertising

American author Tom Robbins once said “The more advertising I see, the less I want to buy.”

Advertising as a business practice has seen a massive evolution over the last century. Between the establishment of brand identities and the advent of social media as a means of product communication, the selling of a product is no longer just about the product. In the modern age businesses are selling images, mindsets, and identities along with their goods and services. Buying a new hair dryer is just as much about what the brand you choose says about you as it is about the necessity for a hair dryer.

Perhaps more than any other major industry, alcohol advertisers have regularly come under fire for both their influence on underage drinkers and history of sexist representations. Since the early 1920’s there has been a deep vein of chauvinism in all manner of alcohol advertising that reflects demeaning attitudes towards women, often reducing them to mere sexual objects. Ads of this ilk serve to exacerbate gender normative expectations for women and create false narratives of female sexuality.

According to May Wilkerson, “If one thing has remained constant in alcohol ads over the last hundred years, it’s the promise that booze can satisfy both your thirst and your sexual desires—just as long as you’re a heterosexual man.” From the gentle misogyny of 1950’s print advertisements to the salacious and scantily clad Super Bowl ads of the last decade, advertisers have frequently employed exploitation of female sex appeal to generate sales. The vast majority of these representations of female sexuality are hyperbolic and unrealistic, generating absurd facsimiles of what it means to be female.

In this image from a 1954 Martini & Rossi advertisement, we see a woman filling her male friends’ glasses but taking none for herself. According to Jean Kilbourne, “She doesn’t have her own glass, but her mouth is open anyway…She is not consuming, bur rather being consumed.”

Image: substance.com

Kilbourne goes on to say that “The emphasis on girls and women is always on being desirable, not experiencing desire.” Though this advertisement is somewhat outdated, images of girls and women placed on a pedestal of desirability is a pervasive theme in advertising. Depictions of alcohol consumption as being “unladylike” were common in the 1950s and 60s, and the modern iteration of that theme is the notion that excessive alcohol consumption or drinking anything that isn’t white wine is distinctly unrefined for a lady. The consequence of these contrived notions is that they create unfair social expectations for women, serving to exacerbate outdated concepts of expected gender roles.

Described by ad critic Bob Garfield as “arguably the most sexist beer commercial ever produced,” the Heineken “draught keg” commercial from 2007 is a cringe-worthy excursion into how Heineken execs view the modern woman:

The ad features a sallow female robot whose uterus magically expands into a miniature keg of Heineken. The ladybot then multiples, either through mitosis or robot tomfoolery, into a troupe of three dancing “iron maidens” all equipped with a keg in utero. Disregarding the veiled allusion to The Stepford Wives, there is something inherently revolting about the notion of a robotic woman whose primary function is to provide you, the consumer, with beer. The suggestion that the ladybot’s only purpose is to serve beer harkens back to the Martini & Rossi ad wherein the woman is permitted to serve but not to consume, and these impressions of restriction contribute to false notions of women’s social functions as obedient and decorative. By reducing a woman to the baseline of a beer-dispensing robot, this advertisement illustrates the motif of “mechanizing women” to serve specific objectives, an expressly dehumanizing notion.

Skyy Vodka is perpetually guilty of reducing women to sexual objects in their advertising. A quick Google search of the company’s print ads reveals a plethora of sex-saturated images, most commonly featuring a scantily clad woman in a provocative pose. Other ads feature heterosexual couples in suggestive entanglements, most often with the male in a visual position of power. There is an emphasis on the women’s lips and legs in these advertisements, proverbially disembodying them and reducing them to their “most attractive” parts.

This image is arguably the most sexist advertisement in Skyy’s repertoire:

Image: lindseyomelon.wordpress.com

The “position of power” occupied by the man holding the vodka and glasses implies that he is the dominant partner; the woman’s supine position below him implies that she is the submissive and thus obedient to her male counterpart. Disregarding the inflated plastic look of the woman’s breasts (seriously, you should probably see a doctor about that), the ad implies that control of women is the ultimate expression of manliness, and the best way to control women is to physically dominate them with vodka.

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