Saturday, October 12, 2013

Ads: Selling You A Perfect Non-Existant Ideal

An ad such as this one was not overly alarming for its time. It was the status quo. It was, most likely, not shocking or overtly racist, the way it is for us now. Instead, it served to perpetuate social norms at the time. To be black was simply to be imperfect, to be dirty and to need fixing, but alas, there is a solution in Pears' Soap! The ads have since changed, but some of the messages remain. Still, ads seek to point out the imperfect (and define what that is, with more stipulations each time) and exploit our anxieties as consumers in commodity-obsessed capitalist America.  Who needs Pears Soap when you can just bleach your skin?

"Advertising is an over $130 billion a year industry," Jean Kilbourne tells
us in her article, "Beauty and the Beast of Advertising" (121). She informs us that we are exposed to over "1500 ads a day" and that this "constitutes...the most powerful educational force in society" (Kilbourne, 121). And yet, advertising still sells stereotypes, hollow frames of what they think people ought to be like and we fall for it like drones! Ads don't just sell us products (if only), according to Kilbourne, they also sell "values, images and concepts of success and worth, love and sexuality, popularity and normalcy. They tell us who we are and who we should be" (121). Douglas Kellner in "Reading Images Critically," agrees with Kilbourne and argues that the advertising industry is "overwhelmingly persuasive and symbolic," that its images "sell the product by associating it with certain socially desirable well as a worldview, a lifestyle, and value system congruent with the imperatives of consumer capitalism" (127). So, going back to this older ad above, how is a black child supposed to look at that ad and not feel inferior? More so, how is a white child to look at that ad without feeling superior to the black child? Here, power hierarchies are clearly defined: white is superior to black (after all the white child is fully-dressed, representing civilization, where the black child is half naked and presumably backward in his ways) but also, that concept that whiteness can fix blackness. But for a more recent example of racist advertising, please see the following link: Here, black men are made out to be abusers, violent men who prey on women (note: the woman in question is white). But isn't it all so funny? Does it make it alright that it was directed by a black man and that the black men in the lineup are his buddies? Perhaps not. 

But what are these ads attempting to do? What do we learn from ads such as the ones above, or any of the many we see everyday, in magazines, on billboards, on the subway car, etc.? According to Kilbourne, we learn stereotypes, we learn about who we are supposed to be (white, upper/middle class and male with a perfect face and a perfect body) and the world advertisers want us to be living in (122). Advertising then creates what Kilbourne calls a "mythical, WASP-oriented world in which no one is ever ugly, overweight, poor, struggling or disabled either physically or mentally" (122). Anthony Cortese adds to this in, "Contructed Bodies, Deconstructing Ads," that advertising images "provide culturally sanctioned ideal types of masculinity and femininity" (Cortese, 52). Ads create a space where women are portrayed as either empty sex objects for the male viewing pleasure or obsessive, compulsive housewives (ideals that are culturally sanctioned mind you). The housewife is "pathologically obsessed by cleanliness and lemon-fresh scents" (Kilbourne, 122). Meanwhile, the sex object is a "mannequin, a shell. She has no lines or wrinkles (which would indicated she had the bad taste and poor judgment to grow older), no scars or blemishes-indeed, she has no pores. She is thin, generally tall and long-legged and...young" (Kilbourne, 122). Women consumers subscribe then to very limited definitions of femininity such as "dependency, concern with superficial beauty, fixation on family and nurturance, fear of technology" (Cortese, 52).  "The image of the ideal beautiful woman captured with the concept of the perfect provocateur," Cortese tells us and reminds us that she is "not human...(but) a form or hollow shell" (54). There is no more dimension to us than this. We cannot grow older, we cannot have acne. God forbid we are not tall, long-legged, codependent, technologically impaired and white. If we are lesbians, bisexual, pangender etc., you would never know since mostly we are there for the heteronormative white male viewing audience. Meanwhile, more and more men are expected to be muscular, athletic and to have a "strong physical image...a physically powerful look (that will)...validate masculine identity" (Cortese, 59). Moreover, they are expected to be independent and rugged like the cowboys of the Marlboro Man ads (Kellman, 127).

But why these stereotypes? Why a woman that thin (hello, Kate Moss) or a man that muscular and rugged (Marlboro Man, recent Calvin Klein ads)? Cortese tells us it's because "advertisers have an enormous financial stake in a narrow ideal" (54). According to Kilbourne, "the image is artificial and can only be achieved artificially" making the "impossible standard" of the ideal that much more costly to achieve since it can only be purchased and there will always be the need for one more improvement or correction (122). The effect these types of standards have on us is we are never quite good enough just as ourselves. We must always buy more, have more, be thinner or more muscular. We develop eating disorders as women and obsessive compulsive exercising behaviors as men. We are still not comfortable coming out because of ads such as this: Or protests to conscientious ads like JCPenney's with: Cortese says that "cultural ideology tells women (and I would add men) that they will not be desirable to, or loved by, men unless they are physically perfect," but I would add to this not just physically perfect but you also have to have the right stuff, class also matters here (along with sexuality, race, gender identification etc.) (54). There is definitely popular culture in these ads, they wouldn't sell otherwise. The cultural ideology, unfortunately, still makes it so that it's ok to present people of different backgrounds, sexes, genders, sexualities, ages and classes with one static way of being.

Thankfully, some ads do critique the current  status quo by using those same brands against them or to oppose a pervasive ideology that needs to be rethought. However, I don't think it's enough to just switch one male gaze ridden Abercrombie & Fitch ad for another one just because it presents a woman that is real (as opposed to the ideal). The woman in the mock A&F ad is still being sexualized. The man in the picture looks at her while she looks out at the male spectator, her bedroom eyes directed explicitly to the male viewer. In the second picture, the man has his hand almost forcefully pulling back her hair (and her head), depicting a sexual embrace (but one that has sexual violence connotations, he is pinning her against the wall after all).

Instead of using the master's tools to dismantle the master's house, why not think of a new way to present ourselves in ads that have nothing to do with stereotypes or roles that have been sexist, racist, elitist, etc. for so long? Let's STOP perpetuating these negative stereotypes, even if, it is still what can be seen in popular culture. Where does the cycle end if no one ever decide to  put an end to it, to make some kind of change, no matter how small? Let's switch our gender roles, or better yet, let's get rid of them altogether (what a crazy idea!). Let's not continue to be dictated by roles set in place 50+ years ago. Instead, maybe we could see people like this in ads: and NOT try to define them as either one of their identities, but let all identities exist simultaneously without constraint. If we must still continue to sell products, let's at least think about the consequences of the hierarchies the ads currently presented us have (among all the other implications). Let's start treating people as intelligent human beings and let's present them as they really are (fat, tall, short, acne ridden, underwear showing, clumsy but smart at the same time). Let's not continue to force ourselves to mold to some ideal that doesn't exist. Instead maybe laundry could be something men do as well such as is seen in the ad on the right (I realize the man is still stereotypically white and attractive, but it's a start). OR get this, why gender our laundry duties? The Way Way Fresh ad works a lot better for me than the Clorox ad from last class. Or maybe, just maybe, we could start presenting our kids with toys like this one: and start change much earlier.

Works Cited:

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

Kilbourne, Jean. "Beauty and the Beast of Advertising." Media & Values. N.p.: Winter, 1989. 121-25. Print.

Kellner, Douglas. "Reading Images Critically." Journal of Education. 3rd ed. Vol. 170. N.p.: Trustees of Boston University, 1988. 126-32. Print.



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