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COMM 436/636: Issues, History of the Mass Media
Instructor: Ross Collins, Department of Communication, North Dakota State University

Student work 2002: The best of student research in local and regional history.

Advertising, whether celebrated or criticized, is undeniably a key force in American society. And, as the author notes, images of women have long been used to sell in published advertisements. How they have been used, however, has changed markedly over the decades. The author assesses this change through evaluation of a midwestern newspaper from the Jazz Age to Post-Modernism.

Kirsten Soderberg

Tracking Our Sociological History:
Representations of Women in Advertising in the Fargo Forum, 1930-2002

Advertising, specifically that in print form, though an under-appreciated and even maligned device in the United States today, has played an undeniable and important role in this country’s economy, commerce, and growth from very early on. Though an omnipresent mass media giant and sometimes seemingly inescapable force of American society today, advertising was first born in this country around 1704, when fixtures such as the Boston News Letter first featured paid announcements (Timeline, 1). Though this was certainly a very early precursor to modern advertising, its powerful role in the magnification and later identification of societal trends in assumptions and conceptions (as is visible in studies of its purveyors such as the Fargo Forum in this case) was distant and unforeseeable. Only over time was advertising truly molded into its present form, developing and expanding under the guide of powerful and inventive individuals and enormous national and international events much like the nation did, during the century that would follow.

Exemplifying this, in 1841, America’s first advertising agency was opened by Volney B. Palmer in Philadelphia. As displayed by P.T. Barnum’s extensive advertising campaign that turned one of his performers, Swedish singer Jenny Lind, from unknown to superstar in the minds of New York audiences in just six months, excess and flamboyance characterized advertising of the mid-1800s (Timeline, 1). The generally promoted bounds of print advertising (such as requiring that all type be uniform in size) were all ready being tested at this time, as Matthew Brady promoted his photographs, ambrotypes, and daguerreotypes with an inventive, unexpected use of type in the New York Herald. Previously unthinkable, the first full-page ads were published during the 1850s as well. Shortly thereafter, in 1869, N.W. Ayer and Sons advertising agency, a pioneer in the field, was founded in Philadelphia. During this year, George P. Rowell published the first newspaper directory for advertisers, providing them with a comprehensive listing of newspapers and their circulations, which was essential to the standardization of value for advertising space. By this time, print advertising had expanded beyond newspapers to be included in nationally circulated magazines (Emergence, 1).

As the end of the 1800s drew near, the evolution of advertising continued at a frenzied pace. During the 1870s, over 120 product brand names and trademarks had been registered with the U.S. Patent Office, and one of these, Lydia Pinkham’s Pills was spending over one million dollars per year on its advertising budget, a pointed illustration of the importance of advertising to American business even by this time (Emergence, 1). Continuing to rapidly expand beyond previous limitations, advertising outdoors and on collectable trade cards was extremely popular and surprisingly effective at this time. The start of the 1880s marked the appearance of another key player in the development of advertising, as John E. Powers first began to tout an honest, straightforward approach to the practice (Emergence, 1).

With the turn of the century, its creators and promoters began to recognize a need to delve more deeply into the true science behind advertising, noting for the first time in Advertising Age magazine that women represented an important portion not only of the audience, but also of the decision making that facilitated household purchasing (Emergence, 1). Though long a fixture in print advertising imagery, women were first depicted from unprecedented angles, such as outside of the home, during this time (though images of women in advertising would be characterized by inaccurate portrayals long thereafter).

By 1905, the use of celebrities in print advertising imagery was becoming increasingly popular, especially by cigarette companies, as illustrated by the appearance of comedian Fatty Arbuckle in advertisements for Murad (Emergence, 2). A time marked by profit through industry conglomeration and the unethical (by modern standards) promotion of things such as unregulated patent medicines, more stringent standards and restrictions were beginning to be legally applied in the U.S. just before 1910. Far from detracting from advertising allowances, millions of dollars were spent by American companies in 1910 in attempts to stimulate consumer spending during uncertain times. In order to further support this, modern market research was thus established, marking the first appearance of segmented, specifically focused ads. Despite previous notice of their purchasing power, however, advertising targeted directly at women, for example, would first appear years later, in 1927 (Emergence, 2).

The three decades that followed these turn of the century developments in advertising were largely shaped by American involvement in the two World Wars. Much of advertising during this period was focused, out of necessity or feelings of patriotic obligation, on the promotion of military recruiting campaigns or the sales of war bonds (Emergence, 2). The advancement of “American” ideals and separation from the enemy was often closely tied to this.

From this point forward, as advertising continued to expand into the extremely pervasive medium that is today, it bounded across divides of print, radio, television, and Internet to become an omnipresent, constantly consumed force of modern times. It is from this frame of reference that many, such as advertising scholar Anthony Cortese, have come to surmise that advertising, heavily reflective of our society’s norms, ideals, standards, and assumptions, can “more than art, literature, or editorials, allow us to track our sociological history” (Cortese, 2). He further states, “advertising is a powerful social force that commands the public’s attention to, and faith in, a particular style of consciousness and consumption” (Cortese, 2). From this vantage point, it becomes clear that further study of advertising’s roots and evolution must not be limited to particular events or individuals of importance, but must also include a study of trends in representation, conception, and appeal, as well as their ties to and adaptations to society at large.

One particularly salient and intriguing focus of this study is that of the representations of women in American print advertising imagery over time and the societal norms and ideals often tied to them. Some advertising scholars, such as the aforementioned Cortese, hypothesize that advertising imagery is representative of gender and gender roles is so widely used and effective due to the fact that these are attention-getting and are instantly recognized by the vast majority of consumers, even touching the core of their own personal identities (Cortese, 52). However, often implicit in these images are “culturally sanctioned ideal types” of masculinity and femininity (Cortese, 52).

Unfortunately, trends in the use of feminine images in American print advertising over time and the ideals that they promote have too often been inaccurate and misleading, as pointed to by advertising scholar Rebecca Zarchik. In her study of advertising trends over time, she concluded that throughout both the 1950s and 1970s, women in American advertising imagery were portrayed as unemployed, incapable of effective decision making, passive, weak, emotional, and dependent (Zarchik, 2). Zarchik hypothesized that this tendency would be directly recognizable if an analysis of the positioning of women relative to and in interaction with men and the product, the advertisement’s setting (often domestic), as well as women’s dress, relative size, and so forth (Zarchik, 2).

A truly fascinating case study in the possibility of such trends and changes in representations of women in advertising over time is that of their possible prevalence in newspaper advertising imagery that was published and consumed locally, within the Midwest. In this specific study and analysis, the Fargo Forum, a newspaper published in Fargo, North Dakota, was chosen as the source of the advertising imagery, and thus, the focus of the case study. In order to highlight the likely marked changes in representations of women in advertising imagery over a broad span of time (during which numerous changes occurred in the larger American society that altered conceptions of women and their roles), a sampling of editions from the Fargo Forum from the years of 1930, 1950, 1975, and 2002 were examined. These were further analyzed according to the prevalence of advertisements involving images of women, as well as the types of products associated with these images, criteria which make trends and changes very apparent.

For mere standardization purposes, each edition chosen was from the month of October within the given year. In order to further assure continuity in this study, each year’s selection of editions features at least one from each part of the week (i.e. the beginning, middle, and end). In addition, all pages of each edition were examined for female images in advertising, leaving no section out with the exception of portions irrelevant to the study such as the TV guide in the 2002 selection. All representations of women in advertising were considered, both pictorial and graphic, only leaving out female babies or children. Some consideration of certain ads’ text was sometimes also needed to expand on its message.

Upon analysis of women in advertising imagery in the Fargo Forum during each of the specified time periods, one of the most striking realizations to be made concerns the dramatic changes in the sheer volume of them. Despite the fact that editions of the Forum consistently grew in page number over time, the average number of advertisements that contained images of women dropped drastically in proportion. For example, the research done for this study shows that in 1930, the average edition of the Forum consisted of about ten to fourteen pages, in which there were an average of thirteen images of women in advertisements. A study of the 1950 editions proved much the same, with an average of fourteen images of women used in advertisements spread throughout twelve to seventeen pages. However, by 1975, as multiple sectioned editions spanned twenty-five or more pages, an average of only five advertisements involving female imagery could be found, much like the average of only six within the lengthy editions of 2002.

Obviously, numerous factors likely contributed to such a marked change in the amount of Forum advertising to incorporate images of women. For instance, a shift in focus from models or renderings being displayed in conjunction with a product as commonly seen in the 1930s and 1950s, to the more recent focus on the product, its attributes, or price was very noticeable. Thus, a new specialization of advertising appeared to coincide with the deeper segmenting of the Forum itself, such as an ad for K-mart’s tool and automotive offerings in a 1975 edition’s sports and recreation section or an ad for Goldmark Commercial Properties in a 2002 edition’s business section (Oct. 1, 33; Sept. 3, E5). It also seemed likely that women were being less associated with certain types of products as time progressed. Images of women in advertising in 1930 and 1950 often related to household maintenance involving cleaning or grocery selection, or to health and beauty products. However, this trend was far less apparent in 1975 and 2002, as evidenced by a dramatic drop in the use of images of women to advertise beauty products.

In fact, on a related level, this study of women in advertising in the Fargo Forum showed a number of interesting trends and variations in the types of products that were commonly associated with females over time. In 1930, the types of products that were the most widely associated with female images were those involving clothing or fashions of the time. A typical edition, such as the one from October 2, 1930, featured images of women modeling clothes, hats, or even lingerie on nine of the eleven pages that displayed advertising. This form of fashion advertising is well evidenced by this Forum edition’s thirteenth page, which features numerous sketches of slender female models, each displaying with their hands at their hips in a quite posed manner, the latest “Autumn Ensembles” of the O.J. de Lendrecie Co. and the A.L. Moody Co. (Oct. 2, 13). Another such example for Mary Elizabeth Frock Shop headlines, “Girls, wouldn’t it be thrilling to go to the football game Saturday in a new suit? We’re sure everything about it would be so much more exciting” (Oct. 2, 7).

The next most prominent types of representation of women in advertising for the 1930 editions of the Fargo Forum were those that promoted household maintenance or health and beauty product. In this case, the household products associated with images of women were often typified by those such as the one for Stott Briquets in which a woman in an apron and housedress serves dinner to her husband under the title, “Stott Briquets are baking insurance” (Oct. 13, 2). Another common example is that of the ad for the Fargo Laundry, which claims its services as “the boon to the modern housewife” (Oct. 13, 6). Typical advertisements for beauty related products featured depictions of youthful, attractive women with flowing hair, sometimes promising as in the case of Jap Rose Soap that “You’ll be amazed how much more popular and charming you seem” if you bathe daily with their beautifying soap (Oct. 13, 6). During this time period, most of the advertising involving images of women related to such offerings of fashion, household, or beauty products. Advertisements for entertainment such as movies occasionally featured women as well, as did one for cigarettes.

The types of products associated with images of women were much the same in 1950. This time, however, the most commonly associated products were by far those relating to the home and household maintenance, now with an especially visible emphasis on the family and women’s relation to and role in it. For example, a Fairmont Milk ad from the October 3rd, 1950 edition displayed a picture of an attractive woman’s smiling face with the quote, “My whole family loves this milk,” much that year’s October 5th edition’s ad for Our Family Foods that featured a woman saying, “Our family likes…” and a recipe (Pg 8; pg 17). In relation, nearly all grocery store advertisements were associated with images of women, such as a National foods one that repeated a smiling woman’s head as a border or even a Piggly Wiggly ad that featured a large picture of Aunt Jemima, head wrapped, promising to serve pancakes (Oct. 5, 15; Oct. 5, 11). To compound this, the stereotypical image of women in the home, dressed in an apron and housedress as seen in the 1930s was repeated several times such as in an ad for Kelvinator refrigerators for the household (Oct. 16, 6). The relationship between images of women and cleaning products also persisted, visible, for instance in an October 5th, 1950 ad in which a perpetually smiling woman demonstrated how to use Rinso Suds (15).
Much the same as the 1930s editions, new fashions were the second most pervasive product type associated with images of women, with beauty product associations following closely behind. Nearly identical to 1930s depictions, the numerous fashion ads of the 1950s mainly features sketches of very neatly posed young women, often extremely thin, with gloved hands on their hips such as in the case of The Store Without a Name in the October 5th edition (8). In relation, health and beauty products featured similar depictions of young women, again making lofty promises such as one by Osco Drug for its “youthifying” skincare line or even one for Lydia E. Pinkham’s compound for “female complaints” (Oct. 16, 2; Oct.3, 8).

A study of the Fargo Forum advertisements that contained images of women in the 1950s, though largely the same as those of the 1930s, were different in several ways. For example, the number of representations of women smoking increased, this time accompanied by an alcohol ad featuring a woman. Another marked change could be seen in the fact that the October 16, 1950, edition featured a Northwestern Savings and Loan ad that included a picture of a female nurse, the first depiction of a woman working outside the home seen in this study of advertising (10). Though changes in the use of images of women in advertising were often slow in coming, dramatic ones were to follow.
As previously mentioned, by 1975, the sheer number of women used in advertising in the Fargo Forum had dropped impressively. Fashion advertisements continued to be the most numerous type associated with images of women, and still incorporated the standard visual effects seen in the 1930s. More specifically, as demonstrated by a de Lendrecie’s ad found in the October 15, 1975, edition, the fashion ads featured sketches of very posed young women standing with their hands at their hips, and the promise that with the dresses modeled, “You’re simply dynamite” (7).

The depictions of women relating to the home and household products in the 1975 editions of the Forum were similarly in keeping with those of the 1930s and 1950s, as exemplified by one for the Piggly Wiggly which featured a youthful woman in an apron stirring the contents of a large pot (Oct. 1, 25). An ad for the Warehouse Market followed along the same lines, as a young woman was pictured studying coupons under the caption, “Attention Housewives! You can save money on your food bill” (Oct. 1, 17).

Though there was a lack of change in the association of women with household and fashion products from 1930 to 1975, the ways in which images of women were associated with other types of products was startling. For instance though advertising for entertainment features continued to increase, images of women in ads for cigarettes and alcohol combined had exploded to become equally as pervasive as those for fashion or household products. In fact, one particular example of this trend, that of the ad for Lord Calvert’s Canadian whiskey, marked another interesting departure (Oct 1, 9). In this representation, a seductively dressed young woman holds a glass under the caption, “Lord Calvert Canadian, a beautiful experience for you and your lady.” This ad was the first come across in this study of the Fargo Forum to use an image of a woman in order to directly address a male audience. Though commonly used today, this practice was apparently rare for a great deal of local advertising history, as most ads of earlier times, such as the aforementioned Warehouse Market example, sought to appeal directly to women.

As images of women in advertising were beginning to be used more commonly to appeal to men, as well as being incorporated more frequently into ads for alcohol and cigarettes, one very striking difference that set the 1975 editions apart from those of 1930 or 1950 has to do with images of women related to beauty products. Quite frankly, this study of the sampling of 1975 editions of the Fargo Forum found none. Formerly such a vital and massive portion of the advertising involving images of women, the total lack of them in 1975 editions is very noticeable. As previously considered, an increased focus on the product features or price during this time could be a possible cause.

Much as the was the case in an analysis of the use of images of women in advertising in the 1975 editions of the Fargo Forum, that of its advertising in 2002 editions revealed both continuities and marked differences. For example, some of the general categories of product types associated with images of women still applied, such as those of household maintenance, fashion, entertainment, and even beauty, which had by this time returned in full force. However, though these categories were still apparent, each had changed noticeably. Household maintenance items associated with women no longer included the formerly requisite appeals by grocery stores or baking and cleaning products, and were replaced with ads for services such as Edina Realty (Sept. 7, E4) or American Federal’s mortgage banking (Sept. 7, B5).

Though associations of women with beauty advertising again became prevalent, they were no longer found in the context of soaps or creams that promised to make one “charming and youthful” as they had traditionally been in 1930. The 2002 editions of the Fargo Forum featured women in ads for beautifying services such as those offered by Laser Advantage, whose picture of a woman shaving fell under the caption, “Hello laser, goodbye razor” (Sept. 5, B3).

Despite these continuities with the traditional associations between certain products types and images of women, a study of the 2002 editions of the Forum revealed that the type of product most commonly presented in such associations was one utterly new and previously unseen. These editions most commonly displayed images of women in conjunction with educational opportunities such as class offerings of Moorhead Community Education, as well as numerous opportunities to attend seminars and lectures such as one offered by the Hanson-Runsvold Funeral Home concerning planning for the future (Sept. 9, A5; Sept. 7, E5). This abundance of advertising containing female imagery devoted opportunities for women to continue their educations or seek self-improvement is certainly a unique mark of the 2002 Forum editions as compared to those of the previous years.

Similarly, analysis of the 2002 editions also made clear the fact that formerly rare depictions of women working outside of the home, or being used to appeal directly to male audiences are no longer issues of debate. In exemplification of this, pictures of female news anchors appeared quite often in 2002 editions, joined by the aforementioned ad for a female Edina Realtor, or that for the State Bank of Fargo which featured a young woman under the quote, “For lower fees on business banking, call me” (Sept. 3, C1). Similarly, direct appeals to a more male audience using female imagery were very obviously evidenced by those for The Northern Gentlemen’s Club, for example (Sept. 9, C3).

Thus, advertising, its imagery, and the associations and assumptions implicit in them have undergone an impressive evolution in the U.S. since the birth of advertising in this country in 1704. In fact, great changes have occurred even within the Midwest in the last seventy years, as evidenced by this study. During our modern historical moment, as advertising continues its expansion to become the omnipresent mass media that it is considered to be today, it has become evident that further study of advertising’s evolution throughout history and its effects on society must not be limited to particular events or individuals of importance, though noteworthy. It must also include a study of trends in representation, conception, and appeal, as well as their ties to and reflections of society at large, as well exemplified by the very interesting study of images of women in the Fargo Forum. Published and consumed locally, in the Fargo-Moorhead area, an analysis of this newspaper’s representation of women and their roles through advertising imagery and product association is a revealing look at not only the evolution of female images in print advertising, but more importantly, the changes in societal conceptions of women and their roles in the region over time. Thus, though a concept overlooked by many newspaper consumers, advertising and its imagery such as that of the Forum editions considered here, can be a remarkable tool which truly allows us to “track our sociological history” (Cortese, 2).

Works Cited
“Advertising Timeline.” The American Advertising Museum. 1996 <>.
Cortese, Anthony. Provocateur: Images of Women and Minorities in Advertising. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1999.
“The Emergence of Advertising in America.” Duke University. 2000 <>.
Fargo Forum. 1 Oct. 1930: 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11.
Fargo Forum 2 Oct. 1930: 2, 3, 7, 9-13.
Fargo Forum 4 Oct.1930: 2.
Fargo Forum 13 Oct. 1930: 2, 5-7, 9.
Fargo Forum 3 Oct. 1950: 2, 3, 5, 7, 8, 14.
Fargo Forum 5 Oct. 1950:3, 5, 6, 8-11, 15-18, 22.
Fargo Forum 14 Oct. 1950: 7, 10.
Fargo Forum16 Oct. 1950: 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11.
Fargo Forum 1 Oct. 1975: 2, 9, 10, 17, 25, 33.
Fargo Forum 10 Oct. 1975: 3, 7, 11, 16.
Fargo Forum 13 Oct. 1975: 6-8, 12.
Fargo Forum 14 Oct. 1975: 7, 9, 11, 14.
Fargo Forum 18 Oct. 1975: 5, 7, 8.
Fargo Forum 3 Sept. 2002: A2, A3, A5, C1.
Fargo Forum 5 Sept. 2002: A3-A6, B3, C1.
Fargo Forum 7 Sept. 2002: B2, B5, E3-E5.
Fargo Forum 9 Sept. 2002: A5, A10, B3, C3.
Zarchik, Rebecca. “Looking Through the Years at Women's Place in Advertising.” Dec. 2000 <>.