Rapidly changing demographic and economic patterns have repeatedly caused advertisers to change plays in their search for the perfect female market. As the values of the '50s shifted, agency heads replaced mommies in pink-checked aprons with sober-faced executives in gray flannel - an ideological leap from the ''ring around the collar'' drudge to Enjoli perfume's ''superwoman.''
Now the post-feminist decade of the '80s is hastening yet another set of sociological criteria to the fore. With everyone from Gloria Steinem to public relations executives decrying the ''superwoman'' image as unrealistic, Madison Avenue heads are once again huddling.
A new New Woman.
It's a reclassification that has editors, advertisers, and ideologues scrambling anew. Feminist founders such as Germaine Greer and Susan Brownmiller have recently published books attempting to clarify today's woman. And publications as diverse as Esquire, Advertising Age, and Ms. Magazine are devoting special issues to plumbing her power and purse strings.
According to marketing studies, American women have won the right to be as financially successful as men. But women are also regaining the prerogative to be feminine. As a result, say observers, many traditional-product gender lines are fading, and women now get the same pitch as men on everything from cars to credit cards.
At the same time, magazine pages and television screens reveal a significant revival of outright femininity and romance - some label it blatant sexuality - in many ad campaigns. Women, it appears, are being appealed to through their powder puffs as well as their pocketbooks. Critics call it a revival of sexual stereotyping, but advertisers insist it is all for the better.
''Women today live multidimensional lives, and it is all grist for the (advertising) mill,'' says Rena Bartos, a senior vice-president at J. Walter Thompson. ''If we address all aspects of those lives, then we're not guilty of stereotyping.''
''Women have developed a real sense of self all across the country,'' adds Jo Foxworth, president of her own New York-based advertising agency. ''There is a big difference between being loving and caring and being a doormat. Woman are willing to draw that line now.''
Yet some advertisers privately admit they are floundering in their attempts to define and reach this new woman. Traditional advertising approaches - woman in the kitchen and woman in the bedroom - still flourish. Recent University of Michigan research shows that sexual stereotyping of product use in advertising did not change at all from 1960 to 1979. During two decades of social change, advertisers consistently portrayed women modeling clothes or performing domestic work, while men were shown on the job and rarely in the home.
Not surprisingly, media critics agree - and insist that commercial female images have not significantly improved - despite small pockets of change, such as the decline of the ''demented housewife.''
''Substantively, there is very little change in advertising's image of women, '' says Dr. Jean Kilbourne, a longtime media observer and author of the illustrated lecture ''The Naked Truth: Advertising's Image of Women.'' ''Content analysis shows that women are still very much portrayed in the home, while men are still considered the figures of authority.''
Some advertisers insist that products for the home must be shown in the home rather than in the board room. Even so, men are still the ''ones who show up with the solution (product),'' one critic contends. And advertisers and critics agree that male voices still constitute more than 95 percent of all the ''voice-overs'' on TV ads.
''Somehow that voice of authority or the last person seen on the screen has to be male,'' says Fern Johnson, a professor of communications studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. And if a man is shown with children or in the kitchen, critics say, his portrait is typically that of a buffoon. ''The underlying message,'' says Kilbourne, ''is still contempt for women's work.''
What there seems to be little contempt for within the advertising community is women's appearances. Long a bone of contention for feminists, the focus upon and use of women's bodies to sell products, observers say, has done nothing but increase with the return of femininity. ''Advertising is the mythology of our culture, and cumulatively the message is very much the same - women's bodies are being used to sell unrelated products,'' says Dr. Kilbourne, adding that ''more than a million dollars an hour is spent on cosmetics in this country. Of course it's to advertisers' advantage to see a return to femininity.''
Even the newly sympathetic portrayal of the ''over-40 woman'' is dismissed by critics as little more than a variation on an old theme. ''Maybe they don't tell women to look 25 any more, but you're still told to look (better than your age), '' says one.
Despite industry cries to the contrary - ''I never met a woman who didn't want to be thought of as sexy,'' says one advertising executive - critics charge that even the current emphasis on physical fitness is nothing more than a new ''masculinized'' standard of female appearance - a criterion that is just as damaging to women's self-esteem.
''The pressure on women to conform to an athletic image is just as great and just as difficult to achieve as was the Twiggy-type skinniness of the '60s,'' says Polly Young-Eisendrath, a professor of social work at Bryn Mawr and co-author of ''Female Authority.'' ''It's also an ethic very much wrapped with power,'' she adds. ''Even today, when more women than ever hold jobs, women's competence is still associated with their appearance, while men's competence has traditionally (been) gauged by money.''
What critics do applaud is the growing tendency by advertisers and some elements of the media to portray women in identifiable and realistic professional capacities. ''Women went from being portrayed in no occupational position to only high-level ones,'' says Edward Kain, a Cornell University professor who recently did a study on women's media images.
''Ten years ago, you would not have seen women identified by occupation or shown as a single parent,'' says Ms. Johnson. ''Today we do see more women portrayed in professional roles.'' But, she cautions, ''The problem arises when this feeds into the notion of 'superwoman.' ''
Not only is such a concept unrealistic, say critics, but the problems confronting the so-called superwoman - child care, job discrimination, relationships - are addressed by the media and advertising communities inaccurately.
''Women's issues are treated within the popular media as individual problems with only personal solutions,'' says Judith Wittner, a sociologist at Loyola University. ''They are not examined in terms of class and gender as are most other social problems.''
The cumulative effect of such imagery, say observers, is to portray women losing the power struggle. Even when women are shown to be in control - Ms. Wittner cites a recent magazine article about male-female relationships - it is often deceptive. ''The message to women is typically, 'This is the way the world is and you have control only by adapting or by leaving,' '' Ms. Wittner says. ''That's a very negative political image.''
According to some observers, the issue has taken on a note of urgency. ''When (traditional) role models are absent, people look to the arts and to the media for guidance,'' says Ms. Young-Eisendrath.
''Women today are searching for those images to help them establish their own sense of self-worth.''
But advertisers insist that the bottom line is still a two-way street. Women and men still respond to idealized portraits of themselves and each other.
''We need to find the imagery that women relate to,'' says Ms. Bartos, ''but that doesn't necessarily mean finding the mirror image.''