Posted by: helenabeliveau | November 10, 2018

A Closer Look at Contemporary Soap Advertisements


I became interested in exploring contemporary advertisements after last week’s discussion on commodity culture within soap advertisements, and the continuation of that discussion this week. More specifically, in the relationship between commodity culture, the domestic sphere, and the ‘invisibility’of those conducting labor in the domestic sphere.  In thinking about more recent advertisements for products used mostly for cleaning the home, I found that they were eerily similar to the various antiquated soap advertisements that we looked at last week.

Although not as overt, advertisements for cleaning products are still mostly targetted towards women, particularly in a very specific family structure consisting of an image of a mother, her mischevious children, and a noticeably absent father.  In addition, the family that constitutes these characters, the product at hand acts as, one could argue, the main character. This configuration, more specifically in the element of the object as a character, creates an interesting dynamic between the ones who use the product and product itself.  This dynamic results in a tension between commodity as a way to alleviate domestic labor and facilitate leisure, and the simultaneous erasure of the people who still have to conduct that labor. This image of the Dawn dishwashing soap with Olay hand renewal I’ve found exemplifies several elements of the beginnings of commodity culture.  In addition, this advertisement utilizes the notion that one’s hands portray one’s relationship to labor. 

The eye is immediately drawn to the perfectly manicured hands cradling the sponge, and a dialogue coming from the sponge that says- “So I do the dirty work, and your hands get the beauty treatment?  Thanks a lot.” First and foremost, one can deduce that the extreme feminization of the hands suggests, that in the imagination of society, the one conducting this type of labor within the home is the mother figure of the household.  The use of both a pink bottle and a pink sponge enforces that image drastically, as it connotates a binary of pink and blue used to portray an image of a man and woman.

The nature of the hands are particularly interesting, as they appear extremely manicured.  In McClintock’s Chapter “Massa and Maids” more specifically on the discussion of hands, she argues that, “hands expressed one’s class by expressing one’s relation to labor.  Dainty hands were hands that were unstained by work” (McClintock 99). The display of the unworked hands indicates a similar anxiety of the Victorian era in which middle-class women who might have toiled in cleaning and cooking due to being unable to afford hired help attempt to hide that fact through counteracting the effects of that labor on their hands.  In attempting to emulate the aristocratic class in conveying a sense of leisure in their lifestyle, the women who conduct this work are simultaneously erasing their own unpaid labor. So then, even today, there is this attempt to emulate a certain lifestyle through erasure of those who conduct this labor.

This erasure is endorsed even more through the use of the sponge as a character.  Rather than using the actual subject of the one cleaning the dishes to speak in the advertisement, the sponge is portrayed as the main character through its speaking part.  Albeit used for comedic effect, the sponge suggests that it is the sponge doing all of the work.  This focus is doubly enforced through the rather detached and depersonalized nature of the hands. Rather than include an actual person, the ad further detaches the actual person from the work that they are doing, and further minimizes their role in this activity, even though it is this type of person that they are targetting.  

Although this particular advertisement was released in 2013, many advertisements of this nature can still be seen today. It is rather surprising that there is still a particularly antiquated notion of the domestic sphere, and how that translates to marketing for the consumers of these products.


Dawn advertisement smallWorks Cited

Image 1:

McClintock, Anne. Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. Routledge, 1995.


  1. Great analysis! It’s striking how persistent many of the ideas from our class readings have proven to be.

    I was inspired by your post to do some more digging around on YouTube and was reminded that Meghan Markle had in elementary school called out sexism in a soap ad, garnering national attention. As a side note (because I feel like it would require its own post) the persistence of feminine, white purity in soap ads feels related to the extra layer of the racist anxiety in the UK around Markle’s entry into the royal family.

    Related to your post, I came across a commercial that is remarkably reminiscent of your example from Dawn. This 1991 commercial for Ivory Dish Soap ( opens with a shot of a young (blonde, blue-eyed) daughter imitating her mother in the kitchen, learning the household skills that will inevitably be used when she becomes a mother. Her hands are compared to clouds, and the reminder that the brand references ivory (precious and white) hangs over the commercial.

    Like you explore, this product seeks to unburden the mother from the physical “harm” of labor, ending with that image of manicured, disembodied hands in front of the company label. It is not merely an ad for soap, but a promotion of ideals of motherhood, beauty, purity, and cleanliness that nearly thirty years later has merely adapted to the base standard necessary to avoid controversy.

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