Jane Maas’ memoir Mad Women is an answer to the question: what was it like for women in the 1960s? Clearly the TV show Mad Men demonstrates the male side quite well, but what was it like for the real Peggy Olsons of the 1960s?
What I got from the book was that although there was a feminist movement to help move women forward; the social, cultural and family pressures slowed down the process. Women not only wanted to be accepted as equals to men, but they also wanted to be accepted by fellow women. An example of this is frozen dinners. They were largely purchased and used in secret. You didn’t want other housewife’s to know that you fed your family that rubbish, because it reflects badly on you and your ability to keep a good home. I bring this up because advertising in the 1960s is always critiqued as encouraging those stereotypes, but through reading Jane’s book you begin to understand that companies wanted to advertise new easier to use products but many women won’t jump on board.
Before reading the book I assumed that advertising encouraged the stereotypes in those times. However, the opposite is also true too. Men and women kept up with the stereotypes due to peer pressure or because that is what they firmly believed. There was of course “radical” women in those times. I used quotations because a woman wanting to work isn’t seen as radical today, but back then it was. Some women worked after they had kids (like Jane Maas) and they fed their family frozen dinners (again, like Jane Maas). Over time more and more women did both. They slowly brought in things and ideas into their lives that slowly changed society. Yes, Mad Women is a book about advertising, but it is an interesting viewpoint into the mind of a woman in the 60s struggling with the stereotypes she is faced with and the choices she makes: should I break this stereotype, or live up to it?
Does advertising reflect culture or create and maintain it? In my opinion it is not a black and white question. So I’d say both. It encourages new culture by introducing new products like frozen dinners, but it reflects old culture by how it speaks to their audience. Since housewives in general needed to live up to certain ideals they would feel ashamed by buying frozen dinners. So the advertising would most likely have to curb those thoughts.
By viewing the commercial the feeling is that you are not going to compromise the quality of the dinner you’d serve your family. Yes there are ads that clearly stereotype women. From our perspective it seems every ad does so. Then again the 60s were different times, and composed of different customs. It will be interesting to look back at our time in 30-40 years and see the ads that populated our media. Then we’d think, “Holy crap! I was a racist!” For example the LGBT community is protesting to simply be accepted into society, and to not be seen as ‘different’. Also if you pay attention next time you’re watching commercials on TV, you’d notice that white people out number all other racial minorities 4 to 1. Here is an interesting question to ask yourself: if you were to cast a TV commercial who would you cast? The default answer is “whoever the target market is.” Then again that only furthers the stereotype that your product is use by that race/gender/faith. If you were to cast a different ethnicity in the commercial it may be taken as “out of place.” Obviously there is no one-size fits all answer. There never is for these kind of things.
In conclusion, advertising is responsible for some stereotypes, and in other cases only responding to others. Advertising in essence is a sales tool that tries to appeal to the widest market possible. In doing so it has to take in the median idea of its market. So when you see an ad it is acting as a median snapshot of that advertiser’s perspective of its market at that time, be it the 1960s or 2013.