Advertising, Feminism, Reproductive Rights, Privacy, Law

Document Type

Peer-Reviewed Research Article


Advertising and privacy were once seen as mutually antagonistic. In the 1950s and 1960s, Americans went to court to fight for their right to be free from the invasion of privacy presented by unwanted advertising, but a strange realignment took place in the 1970s. Radical feminists were among those who were extremely concerned about the collection and computerization of personal data—they worried about private enterprise getting a hold of that data and using it to target women—but liberal feminists went in a different direction, making friends with advertising because they saw it as strategically valuable.

Liberal feminists argued that in the context of reproductive rights, advertising and privacy belonged on the same team. A woman’s right to self-determination in the realm of reproduction, constitutionally protected by the right to privacy, would be undercut by any restriction of advertising related to reproductive products and services, they argued. Liberal feminists fought for the right to be targeted by advertising, which they said contained valuable information. This strategy, I argue, invited the vampire of what Shoshana Zuboff calls “surveillance capitalism” in. By the 1980s, companies were bombarding new mothers with coupons, ads, and baby formula samples before they had even left the maternity ward. Photography companies paid for access to maternity wards, where photographers would snap photos of newborns, then ask new mothers who might still be heavily medicated for their credit card information in exchange for prints. Disney started sending its salespeople into hospital rooms. Today, women faced with the far more formidable threats posed by Big Data lack a meaningful cultural or legal context for pushing back, and they are suffering as a result.

Many neoliberal feminists still think more representative or more inclusive advertising is worth fighting for. I argue that we yet have much to learn from the radical feminists who believed that we have a privacy right to be free from the intrusions of advertising altogether. For feminists to limit themselves to fighting for an equal right to be exploited by asymmetries of information would be to replicate the tactical errors of previous generations of women who believed that targeted advertising would be crucial to their liberation. To resist capitalism today means pushing back against the idea that privacy is obsolete and insisting that algorithmic intelligence and consciousness are not continuous.




September 28, 2021


May 9, 2023