|A vintage ad for weight... gain? On the surface it appears that body image standards have changed, but it seems women have always been under scrutiny. Also, notice the "weight gain" accumulated in certain acceptably curvy and often sexualized areas!|
As a commercial marketing tool, advertising seeks to sell and promote to consumers through persuasion and branding. However, “advertising sells much more than products; it sells values and cultural representations, such as success and sexuality as we have seen” (Cortese 45). Advertisements reflect the dominant cultural norms. As Cortese describes in “Constructed Bodies, Deconstructing Ads: Sexism in Advertising,” “advertising reflects the traditional beliefs, myths, tales, and practices of our society and a culture based on commodities. Advertising articulates and channels cultural acts, but it does not create artificial desires nor mandate behavioral patterns” (76). Thus, while advertising does not directly cause every day violence, it contributes to prevalent attitudes that in conjunction with a lack of media literacy and unchecked regulation of images and messages can mislead easily impressionable (and already formed) minds.
Not all advertisements are created equal: some take a more traditional, innocuous approach, others utilize shock value. The latter is done to receive attention, even if it trivializes serious issues and triggers its audience. Fashion editorials, which advertise trends, brands, and a certain lifestyle, have a history of trivializing and glamorizing domestic violence (trigger warning). Likewise, fashion spreads and other print advertisements use non-Western locales and (usually non-white) people as background props, as seen in the ad for Conrad hotels and resorts (below). The ad's tagline reads: “the luxury of being yourself” and implicitly refers to the young, thin, white, presumably affluent heterosexual couple in the foreground. Coincidentally, these aforementioned descriptors of identity fit the targeted audience of the ad as well. The Asian women in the background sorting through fish are the “other” in the image.
Another vivid example of this fetishistic Orientalism is from the “Young Turks” fashion editorial in V Magazine (issue 79, Fall 2012), photographed by Mario Sorrenti (below):
There are incredible sexist double standards represented in advertising. Cortese quotes: “Ads use visual images of men and women to grab our attention and persuade. They are really projecting gender display—the ways in which we think men and women behave—not the way they actually do behave (Goffman 1976)” (52). Hence, people pick up on these social cues and often reinforce them either through appearance, action, speech, and so on. One does not have to search very far to find advertising images that perpetuate normative behaviors about men and women. “Alternative” clothing store American Apparel, whose founder and CEO Dov Charney, a devout misogynist, actively objectifies its female employees, both in ads and a retail setting. A side by side comparison of women's and men's clothing ads, as they appear on the website, demonstrate a stark difference in gender display (below). The female models are posed to be sexy in the eyes of the male gaze, while the male models pose to show the function of the clothing. It is almost as baffling as ads for clothing with naked models, like clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch uses, whose CEO, Mike Jeffries, is also an outspoken believer in upholding culturally dominant and elitist ideas, specifically about beauty. A quick Google images search reveals this trend of shirtless male models. The objective is, of course, to promote an ideal, unrealistic image: “What kind of a representations does advertising produce? It creates a mythical, WASP-oriented world in which no one is ever ugly, overweight, poor, toiling, or physically or mentally disabled (unless you count the housewives who talk to little men in toilet bowls) (Kilbourne 1989)” (Cortese 52; Kilbourne 122).
|American Apparel's use of gender display and objectification of women|
It is convenient for advertisers to target certain demographics. These demographics are often limited in representation—they represent the privileged and ignore the marginalized. The invisibility, erasure, tokenization, stereotyping, and misrepresentation of marginalized groups in advertisements and exclusion from target demographics affect these groups adversely. Danae Clark theorizes “gay window advertising:” “but 'gayness' remains in the eye of the beholder: gays and lesbians can read into an ad certain subtextual elements that correspond to experiences with or representations of gay/lesbian subculture. If heterosexual consumers do not notice these subtexts or subcultural codes, then advertisers are able to reach the homosexual market without ever revealing their aim...” (144). One can look for signs of belonging if the signs are not explicit, even if they are unintended by the advertisers, as presented by Calvin Klein marketing directors' rejection of the idea of appealing to gay men in their ads (Clark 144). Clark also argues that sexual ambiguity and androgyny (almost always leaning on the thin, white, pale, and masculine side) became commodified as a fashion trend without their strong ties to identity politics. Lesbian identity, as perceived by advertisers, is thus predicated upon an alternative, not mainstream, subversive existence.
Often advertisements assume a default (read: usually white, sometimes male) consumer. The term “flesh-colored,” for instance, is ubiquitously used to describe a peachy, light skin color that is by no means the universal “flesh” color. A vintage Band-Aid ad illustrates this phenomenon (below). Similarly, Nivea's “look like you give a damn” campaign blunder asserted that black men with natural hair were uncivilized. The image of a black man with a short haircut and little facial hair flinging a decapitated head of a black man with an afro and facial hair with the text “re-civilize yourself” justly created controversy. Its racist overtones promote a very specific ideal of what “civilized” (a very misused word) looks like.
|Band-Aid's "flesh-colored" plastic bandages|
In order to properly read and understand advertisements, one must be media literate. Douglas Kellner advocates “... the need to expand literacy and cognitive competencies in order to survive the onslaught of media images, messages, and spectacles which are inundating our culture” (126). I think that a critique of consumerism cannot exist without a critique of capitalism. It is important to voice outrage at degrading and offensive advertising images. Dismemberment in advertisements distresses me greatly. The perpetuation of hierarchical power structures does as well. However, as Kimberlé Crenshaw concisely states, “tokenistic, objectifying, voyeuristic inclusion is at least as disempowering as complete exclusion” (1261). Boycotts can be effective too, if not on a mass scale, for it is difficult to compete with large retailers (most people do not hand make their products or can afford to shop more ethically), then on a personal level. I try not to purchase from various places because of their labor practices, marketing strategies, and prices. It is a long list (Lush Cosmetics, Urban Outfitters, American Apparel, Forever 21, Starbucks, etc.) It helps that I am extremely picky and have shopping anxiety anyway, but I digress. Alternatives to mainstream advertising images that I enjoy usually fall in the category of comedy. I believe in using comedy as catharsis, especially to criticize existing power structures, or in this case, representations of culture. A good sense of humor is an asset to media literacy. Cortese writes and quotes:
“Advertisers are constantly bombarding consumers, especially women, with the message that they are inherently flawed—that what they are or what they have is not enough, too much, or not good enough, (Kilbourne 1989)... There is an assumption, often explicit, that there is something wrong with their physical appearance, dress, or body odor. 'Where did such widespread afflictions as body odor, halitosis, iron poor blood, gray hair, water spots, vaginal odor, dish pan hands, various small glands and muscles, and split ends come from?' (Twitchell 1995, 32)” (Cortese 63)
A relevant sketch from That Mitchell and Webb Look is below. It satirizes the difference between commercials for women and men.
Yet another sketch from a British comedy series, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, parodies the typically faux-sensual nature of perfume commercials (below):
Clark, Danae. “Commodity Lesbianism.” 142-151. Print.
Cortese, Anthony. "Constructed Bodies, Deconstructing Ads: Sexism in Advertising." Provocateur: Images of Women and Minorities in Advertising. N.p.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999. 45-76. Print.
Crenshaw, Kimberlé. "Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color." Stanford Law Review 43.6 (1991): 1241-99. Print.
Kellner, Douglas. "Reading Images Critically: Toward a Postmodern Pedagogy." 126-32. Print.
Kilbourne, Jean. Beauty and the Beast of Advertising. 121-125. Print.