The amount of advertising that the average consumer has to filter through has skyrocketed in the last thirty years. It is estimated that city dwellers are exposed to 300% more advertising today bringing the total of ads from just 2,000 to a whopping 5,000 ads daily. The correlation between the ever expanding global economy, consumerism and advertisement growth certainly defends this statistic. However, society cannot negate the negative consequences of advertisement clutter; it’s not just a consumer’s choice which has become more complicated but their psychological and emotional welfare which have been gravely compromised. The cultural repercussions are astonishing as we realize just how big of a role advertisers have in defining who we are, where we are, and what we should strive to become. Advertisers define gender and racial roles, manipulate sexuality, and exploit consumer vulnerability, all to sell cheap goods and ideas, without consequence.
Advertisers certainly do not discriminate but they absolutely target specific groups within society. Gender targeted advertising has been a weakness which advertisers have exploited since ads became relevant. There are many facets to gender based advertising, sexual objectification being the leading technique. In his piece “On Ways of Seeing” John Berger argues “Women are there to feed an appetite, not to have any of their own” (Berger, 55). Women satisfy the veracious appetites of their male counterparts. An Herbal Essence commercial is a prime example of objectification; a shampoo marketed for women features an overtly sexual Nicole Scherzinger moaning as she lathers her fruit scented shampoo on to her luscious locks while naked in the shower on television. There are absolutely some inconsistencies in this over the top ad. What do sex and shampoo have in common; nothing at all. Advertisers are fully aware of their gimmicks. On the one hand, the ad works to empower a woman to feel sexy and independently beautiful all the while she is fully aware that her boyfriend, husband what have you is being sexually manipulated as this ad now defines what his girlfriend should look like and how she can achieve it. These sorts of ads create false expectations of sexuality between men and women leaving them feeling both feeling insecure and inadequate.
After advertisers have successfully stripped a woman of her self-worth and confidence maybe they feel some remorse but more likely they spot the pot of gold waiting for them at the other end. They now zero in on a woman’s insecurities and how advertisements can rebuild her self-esteem. For instance, in Susan Bordo’s “Hunger as Ideology”, she describes an ad for liquid eye liner whose caption reads, “Perfect Pen Eyeliner, Puts you in control. And isn’t that nice for a change?” Having long been identified as the inferior sex, women are seeking ways to step out the shadow of man and eyeliner is there ticket out as suggested by Maybelline. Perhaps, however, woman do not feel ‘less than’ but ads help to construct these feelings of inferiority in a woman’s mind by implying that she is rarely in control, appealing to the sense of Patriarchy which Bell Hooks so fervently protested, “Dominator culture teaches all of us that the core of our identity is defined by the will to dominate and control others” (Bell Hooks 115.) Advertisers position men and women in a face off for superiority where men are winning all ready but women have to assert themselves as the dominate to ascend to the top of the hierarchical structure.
This manipulation of the female psyche deems her a sexual object on display for male enjoyment and there is no way she could ever challenge him in the domestic environment either; she seeks solace in the one area of her life she appears to have control over, her weight. She strives to achieve the unrealistic ideals portrayed by advertisers preying on vulnerable woman. There is a war going on within her to eat or not to eat, she would hate to balloon up or appear to be overeating so she sacrifices her health for appearances trying to achieve the ideal she demands from herself and she believes the outside is demanding from her. Although the tendency toward starvation is common amongst all women, Susan Bordo explores the constantly changing attitude toward food from both White and African American Women, “Arguably, a case could be made for a contrast between white women’s obsessive relations with food and a more accepting attitude toward women’s appetites within African American communities” (Bordo 103). Advertisements perpetuate these norms and play up these stereotypes within the community all though there a shift is underway within cultural attitude it’s intriguing to acknowledge just have grave up an impact advertisements have on our identities.
Current advertising techniques are so heavily engrained in our culture, to challenge these institutions cannot be done without great difficulty. Changing the status quo is not simply a matter of role reversal in advertising where perhaps a group of women surrounding a single man in a depiction of gang rape (see Dolce Gabbana Ad). Neither can seemingly more progressive ads achieve this when subtleties such as a professionally dressed woman is allowed merely an ice cream bar while her male counterpart indulges in an entire pint of vanilla fudge (Bordo 134.) Even in instances where ‘the media’ wish to move away from sexist degrading advertising they face backlash, such as in the case of Gloria Steinem and Ms. magazine, “I was often asked to do a final ad presentation, or see some higher decision maker, or speak to women employees so executives could see the interest of women they worked with. That’s why I spent more time persuading advertisers then editing or writing for Ms.” (Steinem,113.) In the case of Ms. Magazine content suffered as editors struggled to find advertisers whose campaigns were consistent with editors expectations of what they wished to portray in their magazine marketed to women readers. The first step to changing the language of advertising is to create a more flexible industry where advertisers are able to promote their good without resorting to sexism, racism, and constructed gender roles.When advertisers no longer fear a unrealistic consumer backlash from adverts which don’t appeal to human primal senses, advertisers are liberated; advertisers and consumers will surely benefit. If advertisers refuse to reform, consumers have little qualms about making their opinions heard. Take for instance the #notbuyingit hash tag used in social media sites such as Instagram and Twitter where consumers are taking a firm stance against sexism in advertising. This movement is being spearheaded by the Miss Representation organization which offers extensive resources for consumer education. There is a cultural shift occurring as men and women alike rally for advertisement reform and anyone can join the movement through social media.
Berger, John. "Ways of Seeing". London, 1973.Print.
Bordo, Susan. “Hunger As Ideology.” Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993. 99-134. PDF
Hooks, Bell “Feminist Manhood.” The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity and Love, 2004. 107-124 PDF
Steinem, Gloria. "Sex, Lies and Advertisement." Ms. Magazine. July 1990: 112-120. Print