The Sexist

Women’s Health Marketing Embraces Misogyny in the Name of “Awareness”


A spindly, beautiful woman is extended on a chaise lounge in an immaculate ruffled dress. She is paging idly through an antique book when a floating trail of sparkly light interrupts her reading. She follows the glow up the staircase of the manse and into a room marked by fresh roses and enchanting music, where she twirls luxuriously and pets her own hair. A shining perfume bottle appears, suspended in the air. It turns magnificently to reveal its label: "CERVICAL CANCER."

"Maybe it's unfair to get your attention this way," a narrator admits. "But nothing is fair about cervical cancer." When it comes to marketing products related to women's health, anything is fair game—as long as your sexist tropes are dispatched in the name of "awareness."

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The frilly cancer awareness ad is produced by GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical company behind HPV vaccine Cervarix, an alternative to Gardasil that was approved by the FDA last October and is already in heavy use in the UK. The premise of the new ad is that it's unfair to lure women into cervical cancer awareness with shiny things—but cervical cancer awareness is so important that it just doesn't matter how offensively sexist that premise is.

The pinkification of women's health is nothing new, of course. Breast cancer awareness promoters have long engaged in the deep feminization of women's health. Breast cancer is now inextricably linked to such enduring symbols of femininity as pink ribbons, flowers, butterflies, angels, teddy bears, cartoon penguins, and yogurt. Adult women who develop abnormal cell growth in the tissues of the breasts aren't any regular cancer patients—they're cancer patients who must be treated with infant-fairy-princesses gloves.

The infantilization of women's health is a product of a marketing environment where women's breasts are constantly reinforced as overtly sexual, while other aspects of women's bodies—like menstruation—are dismissed as vulgar. The pervasive pink is an attempt to neutralize the idea that women's bodies are necessarily either sexy or gross by unleashing a boatload of nonthreatening, nonsexual, girly symbolism. The ultimate goal is to normalize the conversation about all the bad shit that can happen to women's bodies . . . by reinforcing the most convenient sexist stereotype for this particular cause. But because that conversation is so important to have, pharmaceutical companies like GlaxoSmithKline are given free reign to take the "ooh, shiny!" route, insult the women their product hopes to protect, and chalk it all up to "awareness."

Other women's health advocates have taken the opposite tactic. Some are hoping to raise awareness of breast cancer in the same way we raise awareness of beer and cars—by emphasizing just how sexy titties really are. This week, Heartless Doll pointed to a recent breast cancer fundraiser in New York City, "Generosi-titties," which features female comedians telling jokes without their shirts on, all in the name of "awareness."


"Whatever gets people through the door," Heartless Doll's Andrea Grimes writes. "But wouldn't it be more interesting if what got people through the door was hilarious women telling great jokes for a great cause, not hilarious women taking their tops off as a publicity stunt? You can't even argue that the end result is the same–that it's all just raising money and awareness, so no panty-wadding allowed. Because the end result of the topless show is that women can, will and should take their tops off if they really want someone (men) to listen to them. And that's detrimental to all women, everywhere."

I'd add that this tactic—which equates a woman's worth with her breasts—is particularly offensive to women who actually suffer from breast cancer, many of whom find it medically necessary to remove their breasts in order to survive.

I understand the importance of encouraging awareness of women's health issues among men and women. Men can be instrumental in raising awareness among their friends, donating money to the cause, and helping to prevent the spread of sexually transmitted viruses, like HPV, which can cause cancer in women. The importance of breast and cervical cancer awareness among women goes without saying. But I agree with Grimes that cancer awareness that emphasizes women as either silly girls or sex objects doesn't encourage the general population to start caring about women as people. As YouTube user bobyzuckerman of the "Generosi-titties" awareness campaign: "great concept I love boobies."

  • Kim Chi Ha

    yes, those commercials are ridiculous.

  • Tango

    I had the total opposite reaction-- I thought the commercial did an awesome job lampooning perfume commercials, which have managed to stay consistently ridiculous since the 80s. The switcheroo is a standard trope in advertising (ha-ha! We used the cliche format of this kind of commercial and now we are selling you fiber!) and I felt this was a clever use. Is it because the subject is too serious? I saw the commercial as parody, but are you arguing that this subject is too serious and the parody too weak (since it's pretty much a standard perfume commercial aside from the kicker ending)?

    Of course, I was one of the people who thought the Method scrubbing bubbles commercial was funny until people pointed out to me all that was wrong with it, so maybe I just didn't get it.

  • Emily H.

    I'll agree with Tango that I don't mind the "perfume" commercial. I thought it was funny, and it does a good job of dramatising the idea that "nothing about cancer is fair" (because it happens to ordinary people who aren't expecting it). It acknowledges that most advertising targeted toward women is about glamorous, "feminine" scenarios, so we're not expecting to hear about something serious and depressing. I also like the model's face, she's all "what the fuck kind of perfume is this?"

    On the other hand I'm not really a fan of the "breast cancer is bad because men love titties" style of ad, for the reasons you mention.

  • Flutterby

    The moment I saw this commercial, I thought, "Shit, The Sexist is probably gonna come down on this."

    This is like saying the Man-on-a-Horse Old Spice commercial is sexist towards women because the character is showing how awesome he is by doing all these things that stereotypical women stereotypically love. The thing is that it's referencing those things [i]as a joke[/i]. Just as the Old Spice commercial includes sexist things as a way to point and say, "Look how stupid these commercials that seriously employ these tactics are!", this cervical cancer commercial is being sexist because it's parodying those ridiculous perfume commercials.

    Given, it's not related to the actual topic of the commercial, but it's a parody nonetheless.

  • pipi long stockings

    When I first saw the perfume add I actually liked it because the surprise factor made it more shocking than any other PSA I had seen. I also thought it was funny how they managed to recreate the super cliche perfume adds we see all the time.

    But then I thought about the "Maybe it’s unfair to get your attention this way” line and why it bothered me.

    It's really patronizing, like they have to trick women into paying attention to important public health messages by showing them something glittery.

  • Athenia

    I actually really like the perfume commerical. If anything, I think it was taking a stab at how consumeristic feminity is--women are so worried day to day about being beautiful that they don't take the time to think about their health.

    That, and I really freakin' hate those I'm-just-sitting-around-the-porch-talking-with-my-girlfriends-about-health commericals. They're so stale to me.