We live in a consumer world. Everything we do and perhaps everything we are is based on consumption and commodity. Daily life has become a constant juggle of products and services – needs verses wants. People and objects become interchangeable. People become identified and classified with material goods.
While advertising and the consequential high levels of consumption are juxtaposed and allied to economic expansion, they are also coupled with personal dissatisfaction, the commoditization of culture, the decline of public and family life, the destruction of true and meaningful human relationships, and the constant fortification of patriarchy.
The first major work of understanding media on a sociologic level was completed by Marshall McLuhan in 1964. In this book, Understanding the Media he wrote:
“After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western world is imploding. During the mechanical ages we had extended our bodies in space. Today, after more than a century of electric technology we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned. Rapidly, we approach the final phase of the extensions of man – the technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society.” (McLuhan, 1964) He points out that “in the mechanical age, now receding, many actions could be taken without too much concern. Slow movement insured that the reactions were delayed for considerable periods of time. Today the action and the reaction occur almost at the same time. “(McLuhan, 1964)
Thus, we are now linked to every other person in the world, through the media, and this means it is now impossible to be disconnected from what is happening in other places. We have no time to absorb ideas and ideologies because the “action and the reaction occur at the same time” (McLuhan, 1964). We are all connected; a small part of a larger system, but the underlying issue is that though we are all “connected”, human relationships are now commodified.
The outburst of media and advertising has challenged the Marxist theory. Marx specifies that people can be classified by the products they acquire. Advertising blurs this idea. People are now identified by what they consume. Class and self-worth tend to be based on what we own. As a result of this, consumption and advertising attempt to blur the class distinctions which could lead people to take class action and attempt to change society. Consumption and promotion offer the promise of a classless society – never to deliver, but infact reinforce the idea that higher class individuals will always maintain what they have and the lower class groups will always struggle to obtain.
Advertising definitely affects the quality of cultural and social life. It also strengthens learned gender expectations and reinforces patriarchy with the use of negative portrayals and stereotypes of women.
Bombarded with messages and ideas on a daily basis, the constant invasion of advertisements not only plagues or emails and mailboxes, but our minds. Whether we are cognitive of this or not, the unceasing onslaught of messages infects our mind-sets and contributes to the way we, as a society, think and act; particularly, the image we shape of women in our culture.
Jean Kilbourne, perhaps one of the best-known advocates of raising awareness about the exploitation of women in advertising, claims that, “we are exposed to over 2000 ads a day, constituting perhaps the most powerful educational force in society (194)”. Kilbourne also indicates that the representation of women in advertising has a negative impact on the way men see the women in our society and how women view themselves. She claims that the constant barrage of images and texts depicted in ads, suggesting the idea that ‘the thinner a woman is, the better she is’, has a strong influence, especially in female adolescence, that contributes to eating disorders and low self esteem issues.
Consumer advertising propels an unviable ideal of the feminine figure. The vast majority of advertising uses a feminine form whose key features (e.g. thinness, particular figure, unblemished complexion) that are incomparable to most real women’s bodies. This can create misleading expectations on the part of women and of society at large. The depiction of females in advertising is also highly stylized and this can significantly distort its viewers’ connection between what they see in the advertisement and what women actually experience and accomplish in reality.
Advertising negatively objectifies women. Much advertising involving female models is semi-pornographic. It conforms to a misogynist assessment that women are commodifiable sexual objects that are both disposable and transposable. Most advertising also uses models with a fairly homogenous set of physical characteristics and styles them so that they are often interchangeable which alludes to the idea that all women are the same while using a subject with realistically unattainable attributes. This approach gives emphasis to the idea of women as essentially compliant, commodifiable items. Some advertising even uses an almost childlike interpretation of women which plays to a mild form of pedophilia on the pretext of advertising. As well as debasing women this represents condoning the perversions of pedophilia.
Not to say that depicting young children as enticing women to sell a product induces issues of child pornography and pedophilia but it does set an atmosphere for these issues to propagate.
The angst women experience from the idea of feeling unappealing is perhaps one of the most persistent and detrimental outcomes of advertising. Only an ideal body type is presented in advertisements- tall, thin, and absolutely breathtaking. In reality, this unhealthy body shape is unattainable for 99% of women (Kilbourne 1997).
Today’s woman is seeing this but perhaps not understanding that the vast majority of the population looks like themselves- not the woman in the advertisement. Photographs are airbrushed or otherwise altered to remove any lines, bumps, lumps or pimples – anything less than “perfection.” The use of impossible perfection is used for a reason. These companies are not just selling a product or service they are selling an idea – You are nothing unless you are beautiful. Men don’t want to look at you- they want what you want- perfection and ultimate exquisiteness – buy this and this and “insert product here”.
They are selling the idea that a woman alone will never satisfy herself or anyone else by being herself. She needs new lipstick to make her lips full, top-of-the-line eyeliners and shadows to make her eyes “pop” and of course every new self-help and diet book on the market. If this ideal of beauty is too far from reach, then consumers will never be able to attain or maintain the image they want, and there will be an endless demand for new beauty products. This is the grounds for the absurd propagation of the weight-loss, fashion, and cosmetics industries, which are among the principal and most lucrative consumer industries.
On the same note, the portrayal of beauty in magazine, television and billboard advertisements is one of largest contributing factors to personal dissatisfaction with body image and in return is a major cause of eating disorders, which have increased through the years as women’s ideal body weight as it is portrayed in the media has decreased (Wiseman, Gray, Mosimann, & Ahrens, 1992). One study revealed that women who view the media’s image of beauty as ideal are more likely than any other group to have a very negative body image (Pinhas, et. al. 1999).
Most of today’s advertising is created for and by males and even if primarily targeted at women, can reinforce a disproportionate, male chauvinistic view of women as sex objects. This is reflected by the fact that most advertising alludes to the concept of attaining the youth and beauty of the hand-picked models – even when advertising an item for consumption has a mixed consumer base. Advertising which stereotypes females through the use of unrealistically aesthetically faultless women, effectively upholds a biased system that pits women against other women in a competition of sexual power.
A serious issue that arises from the negative portrayals of women in the media is the notion that women are portrayed as objects- sex objects. This is done deliberately to increase the appeal of the commodity being sold. Sex sells and once again this does not just sell a product but also ideas and values. This significantly affects the way women see and think about themselves primarily because it questions ones sense of identity and self. This gives the underlying message to women of all ages- including our youth – that the main focus of self- worth is appearance and image. Ads are telling females to associate their own self-worth with attention from men. A continuous theme in magazine ads is of a woman convincing without speaking. The idea is that her appearance or scent is enough of an attraction; she doesn’t need to express herself through speech. Young women en masse are embracing this media offering
Commodification of women as sex objects has an unfavorable consequence. The constant abuse of women’s sexuality to vend goods in the beer, sports, film and music industries, has entirely distorted our understanding of sexuality and gender roles. This may be one of many contributing factors to the high incidents of rape and violence against women in society.
Women in advertising are often depicted as submissive and powerless. Many different techniques are used to portray females. Looking through ads, dismemberment is often seen. This is where a feature of a woman or her body is the focal point of the ad. Whether it is her legs, face, eyes, or breasts, this indicates that a woman is only as good as the sum of her parts- this is dehumanizing- she is no longer a person- but parts of her body are now a money-making vehicle. Noticeably, advertisements that contain women usually focus on the body and advertisements with males as the focal point focus on the face. This indicates a major issue that women in society face everyday- men are important for their intellect and personality, and women are important for their general attractiveness and figures
Positioning and expression are other major issues in the portrayals of females in the media. More often than not, a woman in an advertisement takes on a seductive stance- always overtly inviting and enticing. Advertising tends to reflect and even capitalize on sex role stereotypes. Men are often portrayed as serious and estranged, but women are portrayed as light-hearted and spontaneous. Dominant status can be conveyed through serious, grim expressions, whereas submissiveness is often communicated through expressions of surprise or laughter.
Advertising can be seen as a “social mirror”. All the needs, wants and desires of society are reflected within its advertising. So what is the underlying issue? Are agencies and corporations going to hell in a hand basket because they that know sex sells? Or is the real issue that we live in a male dominated society regardless of the feminist movements and “progress”. We are faced with inequality and an endless power struggle between the sexes that we may not be completely cognitive of until we see a female mannequin, covered in artificial blood-corpse stuffed in a dumpster to sell a pair of three hundred dollar shoes. Issues of patriarchy sometimes latent are still very prevalent in a civilization that deems itself an equal rights society.
According to Erving Goffman in his book Gender Advertisements (1976), people prefer to identify with portrayals of themselves as they desire to be rather than as they really are. He concluded that that advertising conveys cultural ideals of each sex, sometimes in a subtle form, other times more overtly.
When reflecting upon the structure of our society it is apparent that the hierarchy of authority is quite obvious. Even today, society is vastly male dominated. It is still frequently men who uphold positions of influence in the workforce. They are typically the ones making most of the judgments regarding how women are portrayed in mediums such as advertising.
The constant exposure to these ads and the issues society projects, one might question the significance this has in regards to the sense of worth and drive of the population. Whether people admit it or not, society “otherizes” women. It is the year 2004 and women are still considered a minority group. Women are more likely to be found in less meaningful part time employment getting paid only two-thirds what men earn.
“Until women are not expected to have to perform a double-shift, whereby they work full-or-part-time and maintain full responsibility for the domestic duties, these gaps and inequalities will persist (Zarchikoff, 2003)”. Many of the issues and discriminations of society are directly caused by society, and this will continue until this is realized.
Advertising only reinforces the issues of inequality and patriarchy by offering women an inadequate and expected perception of their place in our society. In a sense, our society perpetuates ideas of choice and freedom but in actuality the social hierarchy only allows only so much leeway for liberation.
Is advertising the root of so many social issues? No. Advertising is a direct reflection of society. Although it may not be the root of sexism, patriarchy, personal dissatisfaction and the commodification of life itself, it does set an environment for these issues to ferment and it does reinforce issues that we are already facing. Advertising is not the cause but it is definitely not the cure.
Advertising sells products and services based images, impressions, and illusion instead of focusing on actual function. “Modern capitalism has taken this commodity fetishism to an extreme. In a rational, socialist society, products would be evaluated by their actual utility rather than a mystifying image. Although advertising is a fundamental part of capitalist society, it is completely unnecessary for the functioning of a healthy society (Goffman, 1979)”. In a healthy society, advertising would not disfigure a woman’s sense of self and identity. A society truly based on equal opportunity and shared values would finally eradicate the second class status women have held for years.
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