Rothenberg’s early artwork—made when she was simultaneously working long hours on behalf of clients such as Lufthansa and NBC, and living cheaply in a loft on Canal Street in Manhattan—was, as she described it, “obtuse and conceptual.” In order to connect to the world, she decided on something more direct. “Advertising taught me how to use words and images together to make each more than the one alone,” Rothenberg said.
In the early 1980s, she began with a series entitled “Morally Superior Products: A New! Idea for Advertising” (1980–90). Each featured hand-painted storyboards advertising companies both real and imagined, which were not only promoting products, but an agenda. “At that time, there wasn’t this whole push by corporations to do good things, or pretend they were doing good things—they were just out for themselves,” she said. “It was kind of a radical idea that products would advertise how good they were on different social issues.” (Clearly, in our age of Pepsi and Nike activism, times have changed.)
What were the items and ideas Rothenberg was selling? One such example, from 1985, was a “Secret Penis.” The ad features a big-city woman in a suit, interlaid with promotional text: “You’re Smart and Tough and You’ve Made it to V.P. But You’ll Probably Never Make It to The Boardroom. ’Cause You Lack Something That 99% of Top Managers Have: A Penis.” The product offers a solution to women’s woes, along with a catchy tagline: “A Woman Needs to Start At the Bottom In Order to Get to the Top!”