Sunday, March 13, 2011

I once read somewhere that the people in power cause the problem (or crises), fuel the outrage among the masses (through the media) and when people are sufficiently scared swoop in and offer the solution, a solution which ultimately takes away more of our power and personal freedoms. This statement is slightly paranoid perhaps, depending on how one looks at it, but when put into the context of the media and advertising industries role in a capitalist society it starts to make a lot of sense. In order for advertisers to sell us products that we don’t need it incites our fears and insecurities, thus a problem is created that needs to be solved. It relentlessly reminds us of these fictitious flaws and failings, fueling our discomfort. It’s solution is that if we buy this or that product our pain and emptiness will all go away. But it doesn’t go away because the neurotic pain that advertising seeks to create is meant to keep us coming back for more. In “Where The Girls Are” Susan Douglas puts it aptly stating, “…our deepest aspirations and anxieties are carefully, relentlessly researched. Then they’re repackaged and sold back to us as something we can get simply by watching or buying”. Are we exercising personal freedom when we submissively ‘buy into’ the messages and ‘pay up’ with our cash? Or have we lost some of our power to advertising’s illusory world?

The advertising industry’s approach is formulaic in two ways: first, it seeks to create and heighten people’s insecurities about their bodies and their social status. Second, advertising repetitively churns out images and ideas that reflect a dominant white male structure. Much of this is accomplished through the sexual objectification and exploitation of women along with gender representation, promoting stereotypical modes of behavior while reinforcing ideas of male dominance and female submissiveness.

In his essay “Constructed Bodies, Deconstructing Ads: Sexism in Advertising” Anthony Joseph Paul Cortese discusses many of the strategies utilized by mainstream advertising which is “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) Sexualized images of anorexically thin women who are airbrushed to “perfection” and reduced to mere spectator fodder serve to destabilize women’s sense of self while reinforcing men’s sense of power over them. In “The More You Subtract The More You Add” Jean Kilbourne states, “People in control of their lives stand upright, alert and ready to meet the world. In contrast, females often appear off-balance, insecure, and weak. Often our body parts are bent, conveying unpreparedness, submissiveness, and appeasement”.

Conversely, images of pumped up men who appear to be in control and sometimes on the verge of violence (usually against women) serve to reinforce this paradigm.

By heightening consumer’s fears and linking products to these representations advertisers are selling men and women a corrupted, elusive sense of identity.

Cortese also cites the co-opting of any movement that seeks to emancipate itself from the deceptive realm of advertising including the women’s movement and the anti consumerist movement.

The representation of children as sex objects which "combine a semblance of innocence with a heavy dose of sexual desire to tug at the emotions of prospective consumers” according to Cortes is probably the most disturbing tactic of all. Clearly no subject is too taboo for the advertising industry in its efforts to manipulate the public.

Searching for alternative examples of mainstream advertising campaigns is much like looking for a needle in a haystack.

The best examples I found are at: These advertisements represent women of all ages, races, sizes and abilities. They are representational of real women who are powerful, unique and real. They send positive messages like the Girl Scout ad of a young girl holding a sign that says “I AM YOUR FUTURE PRESDIENT”, one from Liz Claiborne that reads “FEEL COMFORTABLE” and Reebok’s “AND SO MY FELLOW WOMEN ASK NOT WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR EVERYONE ELSE’S HAPPINESS BUT WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR OWN”. This advertisement for Phoenix Wealth Management shows five businesswomen sitting in a posh study confidently looking at the camera, a representation traditionally reserved for men.

Are these ads perfectly subversive? No of course not, all the women fit a relative beauty standard and most, if not all have been retouched. Is it a symbol of progress or just the advertising industry co-opting the progress we want to see? It is likely both.

An alternative path for the advertisers could be to try to appeal to people’s higher intelligence instead of their base instincts. The industry could produce images that celebrate what people truly are and what they could be instead of capitalizing on their self-doubt. Diversity could become a staple of the images we see instead of the homogenized Anglo-fide world the media loves to portray. Women could be encouraged to be themselves and have a voice instead of being manipulated into being “nice”, submissive shells. Boys and girls would no longer be pigeonholed in passive female/active male gender representation. And equality between men and women could be respectfully acknowledged and celebrated instead of being turned into an advertising gimmick. And although these utopic ideas all sound wonderful chances are if advertisers started to treat people like they had any intelligence, eventually people might start to utilize that intelligence and realize that they don’t want or need most of these products after all. The question then becomes: can we really break free from exploitative advertising when we are participating in an economic system that is based on over consumption and exploitation?

It seems that the entire capitalist structure that this nation is built on would therefore have to change. When it comes right down to it how much are we willing to give up? We as consumers can criticize and demand to see progressive reflections of ourselves but perhaps the scarcity of these images is in step with our own lack of common sense. In a twisted way we’re benefiting from this model knowing full well that the immediate and the long-term consequences are grave. How much change from the status quo are we willing to take? Judging by the few ads I found the answer may be not enough.

Anti-advertising messages are one way to interrupt the spell of the commercial industry.

Subversive messages are often astute at looking at reality or at least a reality that hasn’t been spoon fed by the advertising industry.

Their clever messages attempt to co-opt the co-opters and in turn advertisers will likely find a way to sell that back to us too.


  1. I LOVE the opening billboard!!! If only some people would think for themselves sometimes.

  2. "Loveyourbody" is indeed a very good example of alternative to the mainstream images. Thanx for sharing.