These shocking 21st-century adverts are a grim reminder that sexism is alive and well

Posted by
Kayleigh Dray
backgroundLayer 1
Add this article to your list of favourites
Black and white retro photo of screaming woman

From a sexist Easter egg to a deeply offensive Protein World poster, these adverts all made headlines for the wrong reasons…

If you thought that misogynist advertising was restricted to Mad Men and, y’know, the non-liberated past, think again. Earlier this year, the world saw Germany’s transport ministry come under fire for their new advertising campaign on bicycle safety.

The posters featured model Alicija Köhler wearing nothing but lacy underwear and a cycling helmet. The slogan – a lesson in wit if ever we saw one – read: “Looks like shit. But saves my life.” And the reaction was… well, it was less than positive, quite frankly.

“It is embarrassing, stupid and sexist for the transport minister to be selling his policies using naked skin,” said Maria Noichl, chairwoman of the SDP, as quoted by The Guardian.

Despite new rules around sexism in advertising introduced by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) which were introduced in June, this is by far from the only sexist ad out there.

Indeed, these 18 adverts all somehow managed to get greenlit in the 21st century, serving as a stark reminder (as if it were needed) that, when it comes to the way we speak to and about women, we still have a very long way to go. 

1) Not Just Cooling’s icky air con advert

As the UK battled with a heatwave in July, a sexist advert by air con company Not Just Cooling appeared on a billboard in Nottingham. 

The advert – which showed a woman wearing denim hot pants and a tight t-shirt, along with the caption “Your wife is hot! Better get the air conditioning fixed” – had previously been blocked from running on the sides of public buses.  

It suggests that the woman isn’t capable of sorting out the air con in her own home, which emphasises the tired trope that the “man of the house” needs to do it. 

According to a BBC report, the male designer ran the idea past his team of male colleagues before going ahead with it. 

“I saw an advert like this in America, I chuckled to myself and thought ‘why not?’. Air conditioning is a very hard thing to advertise,” he said.

“The subliminal message about society is that it’s OK to comment on women’s bodies, and comment on women’s bodies as if they are the possession of someone else – ‘your wife’,” responded Professor Carrie Paechter, director of the Nottingham Centre for Children, Young People and Families. 

“If I had young children, I wouldn’t want them passing that on the way to school, because of the messages it gives them about society.”

We couldn’t agree more. 

2) Audi’s awful decision to compare a woman to buying a car

In one of the biggest ‘wtf’ advertising moments of 2017, Audi (the German car manufacturer) decided to compare buying a vehicle to finding a wife. Because, obviously, women are a form of property, their value and self-worth wholly dependent on their physical appearance, and men have the right to ‘buy’ whichever of us they deem worthy.

In the ad – which aired in China – a bride is seen being manhandled by her mother-in-law on her wedding day. The older woman even grabs hold of her future daughter-in-law’s jaw, peering forcibly inside her mouth to… to what? Count her teeth or something?

“What are you doing?” the groom asks, before his mother finally approves his bride. The couple are then shown sighing with relief, before the mother’s eyes fixate on the horrified bride’s breasts… suggesting that further objectification is to come.

At the end of the ad, a red Audi drives along a road as a man's voice states: “An important decision must be made carefully.”


Obviously Audi has since come under heavy criticism for the ad, which has been branded a “disgusting” example of sexism. Some have called for the firm to be boycotted.

“From the inception of this idea to its broadcasting, was there a single woman who worked on this commercial?” asked one Weibo user.

Another tweeted: “Audi is being disgusting for making such ad. Women are not products and stop materialising them.”

“I will not buy an Audi in this lifetime,” another said.

Audi have yet to apologise for the deeply offensive ad, but a spokesman has told the South China Morning Post that they have taken note of criticism and will be looking into the advert (which they hastened to point out had been made with a joint venture partner).

You may also like

The 60 best and funniest feminist comebacks ever to grace the internet

3) Pritt Stick’s thoughtless ‘Just 4 Girls’ campaign

We can just picture the scene now: a gaggle of serious-looking men in suits gather around a desk, lamenting the fact that they just haven’t been able to corner the market in the world of engendered glue sales.

“Have we tried… pink?” one of them asks, looking up tentatively from a pile of papers – and the others sit there, utterly slack-jawed and bowled over by the suggestion.

“You’re a genius, Clarence,” they say, clapping him on the back. “This is going to make us rich.”

And voila:

Even glue. Even glue is a sexist issue nowadays.

Give us strength.

4) Co-op’s sexist chocolate egg

Chocolate eggs are so sweetly innocuous, yet it seems as if even these springtime treats can be imbued with a misogynist message, if advertisers only try hard enough.

Take, for instance, Co-op’s Fairtrade Piñata Egg.

Filled with jellybeans, it was supposed to provide a pleasant surprise to anyone who cracked it open – yet the egg’s ridiculous advertising campaign left a seriously bad taste in people’s mouths.

The advert’s tagline – emblazoned across national newspapers in April 2017 – read: “Be a good egg. Treat your daughter for doing the washing up.”

Somewhat ironically, one of the Fairtrade principles is gender equality. Genuinely.

So, unsurprisingly, people were outraged – and Co-op soon found themselves the subject of a serious Twitter backlash.

Cue the supermarket promptly pulling the ad and penning an apology.

“We are proud of our organisation’s equality and diversity,” they said.

“We are sorry.”

You may also like

“A step-by-step guide to sexism”: Lucy Mangan gets angry about ‘Legs-it’

5) UFit Fitness’ utterly shameful gym advert

The Cardiff Half Marathon is all about celebrating fitness, perseverance, and athleticism. Which is why it came as such a shock when UFit Fitness (a local gym) decided to station a portable billboard halfway along the route, featuring a zoomed-in image of a woman’s thong-clad behind.

And, while an image can speak a thousand words (and, in this one’s case, all of them were NSFW), the ad included some actual proper words, too.

Are you ready for this?

“There’s better things to be stuck behind than the car in front.”

The 2016 ad sparked fury amongst all those not living under a rock, with many calling out the gym for its “sexist”, “inappropriate”, “obscene” and “utterly awful” advert.

However, rather than apologise properly for their gross misstep, one of the gym’s managers simply said: “It wasn't our intention to offend people and it wasn't at all done in a sexist or derogatory manner.”


6) Marsh & Parsons’ casual comparison of a woman to property

In March 2017, commuters were confronted by the sight of yet another obnoxious billboard – this time comparing a woman to a house extension.

Estate agents Marsh & Parsons produced a poster in which a young woman is pictured draped over an older man with the caption “A charming period property with a modern extension.”

Sleazy? Absolutely. But worse still was the fact that the text reduced the woman to a lifeless object.

The backlash was immediate and vitriolic – and, while the billboard was later removed, the estate agents didn’t exactly own up to their mistake.

David Brown, CEO of Marsh & Parsons, said: “Marsh & Parsons has a recent history of tongue-in-cheek advertisements that compare people to property and reflect that the range of people we work with are as diverse as the types of properties we sell and let…

“The campaign, created by a team of men and women, is designed to be thought-provoking and to prompt conversation, but it was not our intention to cause offence.

“It would appear that this particular advert - taken apart from the rest of the campaign - has done so and we will be taking steps to remove it as a result.”

Yeah, no kidding. Just a simple “we’re sorry” will do next time.

You may also like

Jameela Jamil really isn’t here for New York City’s sexist weight loss ads

7) Belvedere Vodka’s unforgivable rape advert

Never have we seen a more unacceptable advert than Belvedere Vodka’s 2012 campaign, which featured a smiling man forcefully grabbing at a fearful and struggling woman from behind.

“Unlike some people, Belvedere always goes down smoothly.”

“Unlike some people, Belvedere always goes down smoothly.”
“Unlike some people, Belvedere always goes down smoothly.”

Yes, Smiley Joe is trying to force his companion to perform oral sex on him. Yes, she’s horrified at the idea and desperately trying to escape. And yes, Belvedere really did make a twisted joke about sexual assault in a bid to sell alcohol.

The message was unclear. Were they trying to say “drink our vodka and feel uninhibited enough to rape women”? Or something more along the lines of “use our vodka to render a woman too drunk for consensual sex – and then assault her”?

The demeaning, triggering, and disgusting ad sparked ire all over the world. So much so that it was removed within an hour of publication.

Company President Charles Gibb, responding to outrage, said: “It should never have happened.

“I am currently investigating the matter to determine how this happened and to be sure it never does so again. The content is contrary to our values and we deeply regret this lapse.”

While the company's initial apology failed to address the worrying rape implications, they later included a donation to America’s Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) “as an expression of our regret,” Gibb said.

8) Saint Laurent’s ‘porno chic’ fashion campaign

In March 2017, Saint Laurent was asked to change its spring 2017 advertising campaign after being accused of featuring models in humiliating “porno chic” poses.

Speaking on behalf of the French advertising watchdog, Autorité de Régulation Professionnelle de la Publicité, Stéphane Martin told The Hollywood Reporter that the photos “suggest an idea of sexual submission, trivialise sexist stereotypes, and are in this sense likely to shock [public] sensibility”.

She added: “I am not sure that [Saint Laurent’s] female clients would like to be associated with these images.

“We had a similar type of porno chic [in fashion advertising] a decade ago, and here we have it coming back again, which isn’t acceptable.”

9) Sprite’s “brutally refreshing” campaign

In 2016, Coca-Cola launched a new advertising campaign for Sprite in Ireland – and decided to target it at a mainly male audience.

However, the company was dubbed “awful”, “misogynistic” and “absolutely shocking” when the #BrutallyRefreshing promotion was unveiled on Twitter.

“She’s seen more ceilings than Michelangelo. A two at 10 is a 10 at two.”

Hmm. There’s nothing quite like an outrageous show of slut-shaming to sell a few bottles of fizz, eh?

Responding to the outcry, a Coca-Cola spokeswoman said: “We're sorry for any offence caused by the #BrutallyRefreshing Sprite campaign in Ireland, which was intended to provide an edgy but humorous take on a range of situations.

“Since its introduction in Ireland, Sprite has been associated with individuality and self-expression and we have always been committed to ensuring we deliver the highest standard of advertising.

“We recognise that on this particular occasion the content did not meet this standard and we apologise. The campaign has now come to an end and the advert in question will not appear again.”

You may also like

“Is my belly button distracting?”: woman thrown out of gym for wearing a sports bra

10) USPAAH’s tone-deaf #SaveHimself campaign

USPAAH – a mobile spa service – decided to employ outdated gender stereotypes for its recent advert on the London Underground.

Featuring a close-up on a man’s pleading face, the billboard read: “Out with the guys ‘til 4am again? Keep her sweet with a spa mani/pedi at home.”

As if that weren’t offensive enough, it rounded things off with a tone-deaf hashtag: “#saveyourself”

Another bad ad, another Twitter backlash. But, despite priding itself on its “female friendly” ethos, USPAAH didn’t exactly apologise for the billboard.

“Just because it is 2017 does not mean couples don't argue and as far as we are aware it's still ok to receive a gift as part of an apology,” they said, in an official response statement. “As a company, we are incredibly sensitive to what matters, and mean no offence by our tongue-in-cheek adverts. 

“For all the negativity we've also received tonnes of positive and supportive messages from many people on how difficult it is to not offend someone in 2017.”

11) Ultra Tune’s “unexpected” objectification

During the coverage of the Australian Open in 2017, viewers were forced to sit through a series of sexist ads – all of which came courtesy of car repair service, Ultra Tune.

The worst of the bunch, however, was probably video number five in their ‘Unexpected Situations’ campaign.

Check it out:

Nothing says ‘roadside assistance’ quite like a wet T-shirt competition, eh?

The ad may have been focused on highlighting the unexpected, but the subsequent backlash was incredibly predictable – as was the response of Ultra Tune chairman Sean Buckley, who previously dismissed critics of his controversial ads as “middle aged feminists”.

“I’m very sick and tired of all the boring ads that go on television,” he said. “They’ve got no spunk, no life.

“We decided a couple of years ago to go down a path of making our ads interesting, and topical, and funny.”

He added that both of the women who star in the series are “publicity junkies” and insisted that the “love the attention”.

Ultra Tune? More like Ultra Gross.

12) Yellowtail’s unnerving “pet my roo” ad

In February 2017, Yellowtail made history by becoming the first wine brand to book a spot during the Super Bowl in almost 40 years. But, while the ad certainly generated a lot of conversation on social media, it was for all the wrong reasons.

As well as being criticised for its “embarrassing” representation of Aussie culture, the ad was also singled out for sexism: in it, we see Australian model/actor Ellie Gonsalves’ strolling along the beach in her bikini, before she is confronted by a male presenter (who is, of course, fully clothed).

“Hi,” he says to Gonsalves. “Wanna pet my roo?”

“Sure,” says Gonsalves. “I’ll pat your roo.”

She then proceeds to fondle an unusually sexualised – and wine-drunk – kangaroo. Because of course.

No wonder critics have labelled it “one of the worst ads of all time”.

You may also like

"I will not be told how to act": model Lindsey Wixson slams Uber driver for objectifying her

13) The casual objectification of this Nando’s ad

We get it – we really do: chickens have thighs, and breasts, and legs –and so do actual human women. And morons everywhere have found a source of amusement in this oddly banal fact for years – that’s why so many idiotic barbecue guests have pointed out that they “prefer the breast” over the years.

But, when Nando’s India decided to compare their wares to parts of female anatomy, they reduced women to something edible, something up for display before the male gaze.

Even more concerning was the imagery used: it is distinctly reminiscent of sexual violence, assault, and rape.

“We don’t mind if you touch our buns, or breasts, or even our thighs,” the ad read.

“Whatever you’re into, enjoying any Nando’s meal with your hands is always recommended.”

Nando’s India ultimately issued a public statement, apologising for their contribution to everyday rape culture.

“Sorry,” they said. “We sincerely apologise for any offense caused by our ad… our intent was not to offend anyone.

“We promise to do better in the future.”

14) Toyota’s assumption that women are not as good at skiing as men

Yes, really.

In 2016, Toyota decided to advertise their new car on the slopes at Australia’s Thredbo Resort.

Promoting the Kluger as a “great place to raise a snow-loving family”, the banner went on to match the three types of ski runs with different family members.

For those unfamiliar with the terminology, a green run is often reserved for a beginner, a blue run indicates it would be appropriate for a moderately skilled skier, and black diamond runs are reserved for seriously confident skiers – aka the experts.

Guess which one ‘mum’ was given?

The ad was dubbed “lazy”, “dumb”, and “downright stupid” – all of which are pretty fair summations, in our opinion.

And Toyota clearly agreed with critics, promptly removing the banner and releasing an official statement of regret.

“We simply wanted to highlight that Thredbo, much like the Kluger [car], has something for everyone,” a spokeswoman said.

“We have printed the new marketing material and expect that they will be displayed at Thredbo within the next two weeks subject to weather conditions.”

15) Rethink Breast Cancer’s “save the boobs” campaign

It had the best intentions: this 2009 ad was released in the hope that it would catch the attentions of heterosexual men and increase awareness of breast cancer as the second most common cause of cancer death in women in the UK.

However, the message was almost entirely lost.

The video opened on a shot of a pool party, with a crowd of women and men enjoying themselves in the water. Then, to the amazement of everyone, MTV’s Aliya-Jasmine Sovani walks in, wearing a white bikini. 

Everything suddenly slows down as the camera zooms in excitedly on Sovani’s breasts, revealing the motion of them with every step she takes. The men at the party are excited, while Sovani’s fellow women look on in envy and disapproval.

The caption reads, “You know you like them. Now it’s time to save the boobs.”

This particular ad sparked a fierce debate rather than outright ire: some said it put objectification to good use, while others pointed out that breast cancer is a brutal, unsexy disease – and focusing on breasts and breasts alone reduces women’s value to the sum of their body parts. What message does this send to those who have undergone a single or double mastectomy?

M.J. Decoteau, founder of RBC, defended the ad, and said that the organisation had to find a way to reach young people who believe they're invincible to a disease.

“The spots are definitely not for everyone,” she said. “Young people are picking up pamphlets with a 65-year-old woman on the cover and probably tossing them out. We're really about creating a bold way of communicating the message in a fun way that's going to stop them in their tracks.

“We're hoping that they get the take-away message that is to be breast aware.”

You may also like

#DressLikeAWoman: Women of Twitter respond brilliantly to Trump’s sexist dress code

16) Bic’s attempt at an inspiring International Women’s Day message

This one needs no introduction:

Look like a girl.
Act like a lady.
Think like a man.
Work like a boss.

It’s almost impossible to comprehend how a tweet like that was penned in 2015, isn’t it?

When women all over social media objected to being advised to look, act, think, or work like anyone other than their own magnificent selves, the publicity team at Bic South Africa penned an apology for their Facebook page.

It read: “Let’s start out by saying we’re incredibly sorry for offending everybody - that was never our intention, but we completely understand where we’ve gone wrong.

“This post should never have gone out.”

The creators of the infamous ‘Bic for Her’ range (yes, they’re just pink pens) added: “The feedback you have given us will help us ensure that something like this will never happen again, and we appreciate that.”

17) Protein World’s horrendous ‘Beach Body Ready’ billboards

One of the biggest advertising gaffes of 2015, Protein World’s billboards saw a bikini-clad woman plastered all over the London Underground.

All well and good – save for the fact the sexist ad (peddling weight loss supplements) was emblazoned with the words: “Are you beach body ready?”

Thousands of outraged people signed a petition calling for the ad to be removed, with founder Charlotte Baring writing:  “Protein World is directly targeting individuals, aiming to make them feel physically inferior to the unrealistic body image of the bronzed model, in order to sell their product.

“Perhaps not everyone’s priority is having a ‘beach body’ (by the way, what is that?), and making somebody feel guilty for not prioritising it by questioning their personal choices is a step too far.”

Protein World did not, of course, apologise.

Instead, they released a statement which read: “It is a shame that in 2015 there are still a minority who aren’t focusing on celebrating those who aspire to be healthier, fitter and stronger.

“We now run Britain’s largest protein facility, selling our products in over 50 countries to more than 300,000 customers. Most of them are women. How could we possibly be sexist?”

They later went on to target their critics directly on Twitter, writing: “Surely as feminists, you understand that no one takes you seriously?”

Who run the advertising world? Pitiful excuses for human beings, that’s who.

18) HDS Builders’ completely unnecessary ‘naked’ shower tour

That’s right, building chiefs at HDS Builders decided to create a virtual tour for its bathrooms – and include a naked woman posing seductively in the shower.

The technology involved meant that people could freeze the image, change the angle, and zoom in on the woman however they pleased. And, unsurprisingly, it wasn’t long before complaints began to pile up.

The virtual bathroom tour allowed users to zoom in on a naked woman
The virtual bathroom tour allowed users to zoom in on a naked woman

The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) has since condemned the ad as “sexist” and “demeaning to women”, insisting that it’s taken down and never used again.

“The woman was fully nude, shown full-length side on, with her bottom sticking out, her back arched and with some of her breast visible under her folded arms,” a spokesperson said.

“In light of the nudity, we considered the pose was provocative and could be seen to be sexually suggestive, with the tone further enhanced in the virtual tour because it was possible to freeze the image, zoom in and out and change the angle.”

HDS Builders was seemingly unperturbed by the uproar it had caused – and insisted that the ad was perfectly suitable for public consumption.

Why? Because “people don’t shower [whilst] wearing clothing”, apparently. Talk about missing the point.

Images: Getty/Twitter


Share this article


Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

Recommended by Kayleigh Dray


The 60 funniest feminist comebacks ever to grace the internet

“The day I dress for a man is the day they dress me in my coffin to see Jesus”

Posted by
Kayleigh Dray

10 inspirational teen girls on battling sexism at school

"I don’t feel like there’s anything boys can do better than girls"

Posted by
Sarah Biddlecombe

Dad’s hilarious letter to daughter’s school perfectly sums up modern-day sexism

“I must draw your attention to a serious incident which occurred at your school…”

Posted by
Kayleigh Dray
Lucy Mangan

“A step-by-step guide to sexism”: Lucy Mangan responds to ‘Legs-it’

You are a lady and you have legs. Use them to kick ass.

Posted by
Lucy Mangan

The era of the Spice Girls: when feminism went pop

The people who knew the band best reveal all

Posted by
The Stylist web team