How Sexy Ads Sabotage Female Athletes

All things considered, the Olympics are a beacon of gender equality: Female athletes at the Games are heaped with praise and attention. In many sports, including gymnastics and volleyball, women draw significantly more attention than the guys; in others, like swimming, things are about equal. This year, for the first time, there are more women on the American Olympic team than men. But if the Olympics are a celebration of physical prowess in all its forms, then why do companies use female athletes so rarely in advertising, and why do they bungle it so badly when they do? A new study says it’s because advertisers overestimate consumers’ appetite for hot bodies.

Advertisers focus on youth and sexiness, not athletic ability, when they use female athletes as spokesmen, two professors at the University of Delaware, John Antil and Matthew Robinson, write in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Brand Strategy. But women themselves react negatively to the use of sexy ladies in commercials.

The researchers point to a 2009 “Got Milk?” commercial featuring inspiring swimmer Dara Torres in a teensy bathing suit. “Respondents suggested this was a poor image for an outstanding athlete who achieved so much while raising a family,” the authors explain. “Featuring Dara Torres as a middle-aged single mother, able to balance family with work commitments, might be more effective than highlighting her physical attractiveness at age 40.”

If female athletes are primarily used to advertise sexiness, therefore, they turn women off. That makes them less effective spokespeople, and therefore they’re less likely to be used in future ads. Advertisers are creating a “cycle of failure for female athlete endorsers,” explains.

The good news is that the Olympics create dozens of new chances to get it right. Take brand-new gold medalist Missy Franklin who boasts a killer gold-medal story and is just 17. As Entertainment Weekly puts it, she also “has a smile destined to light up Wheaties boxes across the nation.” Let’s hope they’re right.

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