Femvertising: through an Italian lens

Vanessa Putignano
Photo by Marjan Blan on Unsplash
Published on January 31, 2020

Television and advertising, as forms of communication, have unbelievable power. I asked myself how the woman and the female body were actually represented by these two media and I found some answers. We increasingly find more and more naked bodies made into sexual objects, but beware: the problem is not nudity, because that is normal, we are all born naked! The problem is the sexualization that is being played out, the problem is that the female body is stereotyped and commodified in advertising, television and also on new media and social platforms.

What has emerged is certainly something that is well known, namely that all these forms of communication, both old and new, have incredible power over the recipient who conveys the message and is, therefore, able to influence gender relations.

I dwelt upon commercialization and I wondered how the female body was actually represented and to which extent it became a means to promote products and merchandising. A study by Massimo Guastini, in collaboration with the IAP, the University of Bologna and Nielsen Italy, showed that in advertising and television in 54% of the cases women are present, and men slightly more than 31% – referring to a sample analysis of advertising in 2013.

As Lorella Zanardo says in her documentary “Il corpo delle donne” (Women’s body): ” the presence of women in advertising, television, and media is never a presence of quality, but of quantity, where competence is never required”. Women are forced to be a mute frame, to strive to respect the aesthetic and social canons imposed by the forms of communication, to imitate those more and more artificial bodies, proposed and exhibited in the display window in a growing way on the media channels, created by the new digital technologies of image editing; women’s body is thus transformed into a body-packaging, glittering envelope to be proposed beside the product. Advertising aims to influence the behavior and choices of the receiver of the message conveyed. Often, however, the female body is used disproportionately and inadequately.

Certainly, since the 1920s there have been changes that led to evolution, especially concerning the representation of the social role of women. However, the representation of women has also undergone a sort of evolution. In the 1950s women were represented in advertisements with fixed features: mother, wife, maid. That is, subservient to the power of the male sex, outvoted, and their interests depicted as superficial. These are also the years after the Second World War, namely when the world witnessed the advent of the economic boom, as well as the expansion of fast-moving consumer goods. Very famous in those years in Italy is Carosello, a container of tv spots widespread by the main Italian commercial brands. The ads of that time, although not very complex, tried as much as possible to push the female psychology and the need for gratification and identification.

In the 1970s, however, something changed: the woman took off her apron and turned into a sexy advertising icon. The alluring glances, the sensual poses make us forget the image proposed twenty years earlier: the intention became to exploit physical beauty and to impose aesthetic canons, thus making the female body a sexual object.

Starting from the 1980s we then have a process called “femminilizzazione della società” (Society’s feminization) by the sociologist Giampaolo Fabris, under which advertisers in line with society are forced to review the social role of women and therefore the representation of their image.

A fair representation of the multidimensionality that characterizes real life is definitely needed in advertisements, which shows working women, with real bodies. A bit of what some brands are working on: the so-called “femvertising“, that is, adopting marketing and communication strategies looking for equality and reality in order to overcome clichés and stereotypes.  

After decades of humiliating representations for women, flooded by advertising and media, companies have begun to propose female models that are no longer univocal and stereotyped. This does not mean that these images have been completely eradicated, but that especially in recent years, there are also companies and brands that tend to create advertising to overcome stereotypes and to get closer to gender equality. Body positivity, the inclusion of different aesthetic canons in advertising, is a declination of femvertising, for example. Many cosmetics companies are now showing more openness, really supporting women. Let us hope, therefore, that this is only the beginning of a possible glimmer of light in this dark tunnel.

Notes, Bibliography, Filmography:

IAP – Istituto Autodisciplina Pubblicitaria.

Alici, Luigi, “Filosofia Morale”, Brescia, Editrice La Scuola, 2011. 

Borgna, Paola, “Sociologia del corpo”, Roma, Editori Laterza, 2005.

Bourdieu, Pierre, “Il dominio maschile”, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2009. 

Cantù Cesare, Marco Malfi Chindemi e Lorella Zanardo, “Il corpo delle donne”, Film documentario, 2009.

Cremonesini, Valentina, “Il potere degli oggetti. Il marketing come dispositivo di controllo sociale”, Milano, F. Angeli, 2006.

Codeluppi, Vanni, “Ipermondo. Dieci chiavi per capire il presente”, Roma, Editori Laterza, 2012. 

De Beauvoir, Simone, “Il secondo sesso”, Milano, Il saggiatore, 2016.

Goffman, Erving, “Rappresentazioni di genere”, Sesto San Giovanni, Mimemis, 2015.

Guastini, Massimo, Giovanna Cosenza, Jennifer Colombari ed Elisa Gasparri, “Come la pubblicità racconta le donne e gli uomini, in Italia”, 2014.

Haraway, Donna J., “Manifesto cyborg: donne, tecnologie e biopolitiche del corpo”, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2018. 

Lodedo, Concetta, “La costruzione sociale del genere: sessualità tra natura e cultura”, Lecce, Pensa Multimedia, 2001. 

Piccone Stella, Simonetta. e Chiara Saraceno, “Genere: La costruzione sociale del femminile e del maschile”, Bologna, Il mulino, 1996. 

Pignotti, Lamberto, “Marchio e femmina: la donna inventata dalla pubblicità”, Firenze, Vallecchi, 1978. 

Proyecto Areste, “ARESTE: arrinconando estereotipos en los medios de comunicación y la publicidad”,  Madrid: Dirección General de la Mujer, 2003. 

Stella, Renato, “Prendere corpo: l’evoluzione del paradigma corporeo in sociologia”, Milano, F.Angeli, 1996.


Translated by Valerio Silvestri
Reviewed by Alessandra Monticelli
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