Juliann Sivulka


On her book Ad Women: How They Impact What We Need, Want, and Buy

Cover Interview of February 16, 2009

In a nutshell

For most of the twentieth century advertising portrayed women in narrow roles — as dim-witted sex objects, as perky young things in search of a man, or as one-dimensional homemakers eager to serve their husbands.  These popular images projected in the national media of Mrs. Consumer, the one who is born to shop, were themselves also born at this same time.  An unreal world created by the image-makers, the admen.  In fact, one of advertising’s most enduring clichés is the male executive who tries to defend his proposal with “my wife thinks . . .”  The story goes that it was the adman, acting from peculiar, limited, and masculine ideas of female character, who responded to what he believed to be the aspirations and lifestyle of the typical homemaker.

For all of men’s efforts, however, it has been women who were involved in the new industry not only as consumers, but in a myriad of commercial practices.  Women, not men, have been responsible for the increasing amount of woman-centered advertising – of soap, fashion, food, and house wares.  Women encouraged consumption as part of feminine concerns with nutrition, health, and household efficiency.  Women worked for manufacturers to promote standardized goods and sanitary packaging under the guise of good domestic practice.  Many women played a pivotal role as editors of newspapers and magazine service departments, as they promoted new inventions and styles, cooperated with advertisers, mentioned brand names in recipes and advertising columns, conducted market investigations, and even put their names on products.  In broadcasting, women also worked as information brokers, interlocutors, and tastemakers, as they wrote advertising spots, acted as spokespersons, and produced commercials.

In the process, women transformed the body and soul of advertising.  From Mathilde C. Weil in the 1870s, one of the earliest known advertising agents, to ad executives Mary Wells and Charlotte Beers, Ad Women tells the story of how women have risen to the top of the advertising profession.  The book places these figures in the larger contexts of business and economic developments, the entry of women in the professions, and women’s history.  With each wave of the feminist movement, women took up reform, overcame barriers, and carved out a niche in advertising agencies and the new mass-market industries over the course of the twentieth century.  Today women make up nearly 60 percent of those working in advertising and public relations, as well as countless organizations in industry, media, retail, and fashion.  Women account for more than one half of account managers in ad agencies.  Women also outnumber men in journalism, communications, and advertising higher education programs.  And every year more women enter the ad business.  Holding key marketing and advertising positions, women have shaped the basic promotional appeal of accounts more than ever before in history.