|From J.Crew promotional catalog|
I received a promotional magazine from J.Crew in the mail yesterday, although I have never shopped there or visited their website. It lists my full name and address and offers 20% off my first purchase (in an attempt to make me feel special, I suppose). The picture above is one of many similar slogans found on its pages (my second favorite is “a coat to color her happy”). Earlier today, after shopping for personal hygiene products at Duane Reade, I found a beauty-book inside the bag with my purchases. Potential “perfect gifts” in the make-up section were promoted under a catchphrase “seconds away from beautiful”. And there are many more examples of how products are marketed to attract consumers (especially female consumers) with a promise to instantaneously make us pretty, happy, sexy, and healthy while implying that we currently possess neither of these characteristics.
As a matter of a fact, advertisers may be driving some women in our society to psychosis known as shopaholism, or oniomania – a compulsive, destructive and chronic desire to purchase unnecessary goods on an almost daily basis. Studies suggest that as many as 8% of all Americans may be “shopaholics,” and according to Dr. Koran ofStanford University, approximately 90% of them are women. Considering that women are traditionally assigned a gender role of shopping decision-makers in our society, I strongly believe that capitalism lies at the heart of low self-esteem and depreciation of modern women by filling a void in our emotional selves with the satisfaction of obtaining new material things. Another study was done on 280 people in the UK by debt management company Kensington Financial Management. Of the people surveyed, 67% had bought items they had never worn or used, 84% had bought a perceived bargain on impulse, almost one third shop for non-essential items every week, and one fifth admit they think about shopping at least once per day – of this group 33% said this thought made them excited and 19% said it made them feel more confident.
|Consumerism taken to extreme|
Consumerism is taken to extreme levels in America and not unintentionally.
Generally regarded as “the father of public relations,” Edward Bernays was the first to suggest that people can be manipulated to believe that products can make them feel good about themselves if promoted strategically. Since then, excessive buying has become the engine of modern capitalist economies and is systematically studied and analyzed by market research professionals in order to predict personal characteristics, which may lead to high consumption. Perfectionism, self-expression through material possessions, and approval-seeking are some of the emotions which have been found to stimulate economic growth. As a result, a cultural paradigm promoting these values has been developed and imbricated in all aspects of daily activities – work, leisure, and family. Wykes and Gunter argue that the limited way in which women are represented in media is part of how they are treated and valued in life and lead to common instances of poverty, harassment, self-hate, and discrimination. (p.220) Easy availability of credit and organization of the retail world along with the twenty-four-seven nature of individuals’ exposure to media outlets create the ideal environment for the impulsive recreational shopper.
Shopping is often promoted in popular culture, e.g., shopping sprees of Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City, as a way to transform and improve one’s flaws and literally increase self-worth.
Messages, such as “big girls don’t cry, they go shopping” (Bordo, p.100), suggest an illusory solution to the distorted self-image of women and create a vicious cycle of compulsive behavior. Advertisers capitalize on our belief in the magic of material goods by demonstrating how a particular product can transform us magically into someone more socially desirable, attractive, and powerful. Television and magazine advertisements are particularly seductive as they are tailored to specific audiences and target groups. All those glamorous and sophisticated things we see, beautifully presented and often digitally edited using Adobe Photoshop or other image-manipulation software are intended to spark deeply acquisitive feelings, envy, and personal inadequacy. In fact, a study of body image conducted in 1996 found that 70% of women felt depressed, guilty, and ashamed after looking at fashion magazines for a mere three minutes (Garner andKearney-Cooke, 1996).
|“the body fat of models and actresses portrayed in the media is at least 10 percent less than that of healthy women”|
Modern women are constantly bombarded with images of unattainable beauty ideals. Every woman who has ever opened a copy of Vogue, seen an ad for makeup, watched a movie or lusted at the Oscars knows that the image of the “perfect woman” is all around us. We can even describe her quite well: thin, glossy hair, thin, perky breasts, thin, fat-free thighs, thin, long lashes, thin. The fact is, “the body fat of models and actresses portrayed in the media is at least 10 percent less than that of healthy women” (British Medical Association, 2000). We are continually surrounded by pictures of women who are medically unhealthy, and then we are told to do our best to look like them. Whether it is buying the diet pill to drop 10 pounds fast or doing the correct butt exercises for six weeks, women are constantly attacked with advertisements and images of what we should look like and how we can get there. However, even the products we are supplied with today are not that safe and healthy.
It’s time to recognize what the modern standard of beauty truly is: someone else’s idea of what you should look like perpetuated by greed and revenue-seeking behavior of capitalists. It’s time to forget that standard and love your body exactly as it is. Wykes and Gunter suggest that "it would be amazing to be offered a mediated representation of the female world that shows women in their full variety, complexity and range of ability."(p.220) But is it really possible? I think so. I am confident that there are ways to create healthy and humane ads that would cater to intelligent consumers and still bring sales and profit to businesses and advertisers. One way is to advocate gender-neutrality in marketing, education, and other social spheres. The following LEGO ad is a perfect example of a simple yet effective message, one that is not found on sexist principles and does not promote self-hatred and insecurities.
|A different kind of ad|
Clearly, it did not take too much efforts or sacrifices from LEGO marketers to show respect for the consumer. Compare it with an ad for Love Cosmetics:
Another way to enforce alternative images in advertising is through social activism, which has become exceptionally undemanding in the era of widespread internet use. We, as consumers, are obligated to voice our concerns and actively critique the media if we want to see a change. Below is a great example of such "couch-activism" in response to Bic Pens for Her, which has features like "elegant design - just for her!" and a "thin barrel to fit a women's hand." (Yes, seriously.) The pens also come in an array of pretty pastels such as lavender and mint. (You know, because it's just "for her.") Shoppers on Amazon wasted no time in writing hundreds of scathing, and often sarcastic, reviews:
Bordo, Susan. “Hunger as Ideology.” Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. University of California Press: Berkeley 1993
Wykes, Maggie & Gunter, Barrie. “Conclusion.” The Media and Body Image. London: SAGE Publications, 2005