Overt sexism runs rampant in advertising, but sometimes gender biases are almost invisible.
For instance, Volkswagen refitted some bathroom mirrors to promote its Passat, but rather than stick the same text in both the men's and women's restrooms, the company decided to make their ads gender-specific. Unfortunately, in doing so they ended up reinforcing ingrained sexism in a very insidious way.
Here are the two ads:
The difference is pretty subtle. The ad for men reads, "If you look like a million bucks in this mirror, imagine what you'd look like in one of these." Women, meanwhile, get an ad that reads, "Even if you're having a bad hair day, you can still look like a million bucks."
Both ads are trying to sell the idea that you will look cool in this Passat, but the male ad reassures men they are awesome and this car will only increase that, while the female ad plays upon insecurities and tells women they need this car in order to improve themselves. Rather than just stick the same "You're awesome!" message in both bathrooms, Volkswagen spent extra time and money to ensure women get the message that they should feel bad about themselves.
The scariest part is that this sexism is only noticeable because of the direct juxtaposition. There's nothing overtly offensive about the female ad so many women probably read it without thinking twice. If someone hadn't documented the two ads, it would have been difficult to realize men and women were being treated so differently as consumers.
But this is part of a much bigger problem and a very frustrating loop: The reason Volkswagen can play on female insecurities is because ads like this one constantly reinforce the idea that women should be insecure. And that starts happening pretty much the moment we're born.