Friday, October 11, 2013

Admonishing Advertisements

Advertisements are ubiquitous. Regardless of personal preference, be it for magazines, television, newspapers, film, or any other medium, it is inevitable that the media consumer will encounter as much advertisement as content. Along with products, advertisements sell “a worldview, a lifestyle, and value system…” (Kellner 127). All too often, the perspective offered by advertisements takes power away from women, implicitly accepts racism, and reinforces sexist stereotypes.

In Chapter 6 of Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, Wolf describes a marketing committee’s postwar strategy for drawing women away from the workforce to avoid a perceived threat of “political unrest, even a repeat of the Depression” (Wolf 63). The committee recommended that advertisers add a new dimension to domestic tasks like cooking and cleaning, associated with “maternal and wifely love throughout our culture” (Bordo 122), by offering specialized household products, and by making sure women felt “guilt over hidden dirt” (Wolf 65). This strategy of making women’s ‘inadequacies’ ‘fixable’ by specialized products worked just as well, if not better, for hawking beauty products. Advertisers realized, according to Wolf, that women “will buy more things if they are kept in the self-hating, ever-failing, hungry, and sexually insecure state of being aspiring ‘beauties’” (Wolf 66). And according to these advertisers, beauty is white. Ethnic minorities are further ostracized in that they do not fit the mold put forth by advertisements. Although viewing women themselves as “helpless victims of conspiracy plots” (Cortese 63) is far from accurate, it is important to note the conscious effort made by advertisements to place women in a position of powerlessness.

Advertisements do not just reinforce the idea that women are powerless over themselves; they locate women as having less power than men. While rejecting “the somewhat simplistic behaviorist model that holds the media violence causes real-life violence,” (Cortese 76), Cortese acknowledges the reprehensible acceptance of sexual violence as a viable advertising strategy that condones the victimization and subjugation of women to violent male desire. He cites many examples of magazine advertisements in which “masculine images are dominant, intimidating, and violent, while feminine images are subordinate, receptive, and passive” (Cortese 72). Men, however, are not immune to stereotyping. According to Cortese, “today’s ideal man has pumped his pecs and shoulders and exhibits well-defined abs” (Cortese 58). The incorporation of men into the “beauty myth,” and the portrayal of men as violent aggressors, is far from a step in the right direction – objectifying and vilifying men will reinforce, rather than undermine, the gender roles that advertisements reflect and encourage.

Popular culture is, unfortunately, seen in these advertisements, simply by virtue of the fact that these advertisements pervade all forms of media. The integration of media and the increasing prevalence of the media make it inevitable that current and future generations will come into constant contact with advertisements. The messages of these advertisements, both explicit and implicit, cannot but inform the viewer. Whether the viewer adopts the power hierarchies in advertisements or rejects them cannot be predicted. Nor can it be gauged whether the reaction will be conscious. What is certain is that a new kind of advertising is needed, one that moves away from the notion of ‘gender roles’ and that displays equality and diversity.  

Susan Bordo regularly asks her students to find such alternatives. She writes about a television commercial for microwavable children’s meals, which displays a “complicated and bewitching tangle of new possibilities and old patterns of representation” (Bordo 131). Bordo acknowledges that the ad  “neutralizes the gendered meanings of [cooking and fixing bikes]” and attempts to show that there is nothing emasculating about cooking and serving food for others. Bordo does not believe that the word ‘progress’ necessarily applies this advertisement, as it and others like it “do not show clearly just where we are going” (Bordo 131). Perhaps it is indeed unclear, but it would seem that this kind of advertisement represents a shift from the “dominator model” to the “partnership model” described by Bell Hooks in Chapter 7 of The Will to Change. Advertising agencies could adopt this model by promoting “interbeing and interdependency as the relationship of all living beings” (Hooks 117). 

While it may sound idealistic, perhaps steps can be taken to make it reality. Advertisements could offer a worldview in which people of all races, ages, and genders undertake tasks that celebrate equality, sustainability, and happiness. This won’t be easy. Change in advertising must necessarily be accompanied, or even preceded, by social change. And there is one thing about advertising as we know it that will never change – the impetus to sell. Rather than selling, advertisements must offer. It is, alas, extraordinarily difficult to imagine how advertisements in a capitalist society could make that shift. Hope lies in the convergence of technology, information, and education, and in those few small legislative steps that promote humanistic values.

Bordo, Susan. “Hunger As Ideology.” Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. 99-134. PDF

Cortese, Anthony. "Constructed Bodies, Deconstructing Ads." Provocateur: Images of Women and Minorities in Advertising. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. 54-76. PDF

Hooks, Bell. “Feminist Manhood.” The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. New York: Atria Books, 2004. 107-124. PDF.

Kellner, Douglas. "Reading Images Critically: Towards a Postmodern Pedagogy." Journal of Education. Vol. 170, No3, 1988. 126-32. PDF.

Wolf, Naomi. “Culture.” The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women. New York: W. Marrow, 1991. 58-85. PDF.

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