Imagine opening up a magazine and seeing an advertisement for your favorite pair of jeans! Yes! Here they are! Imagine that ad to have your jeans preferres being modeled by a six foot tall woman weighing no more than 130 pounds. Okay; now imagine seeing this woman in this advertisement on the hood of a car with nothing more than a bra and those favorite jeans of yours on, while a man of comparable looks stands there watching this model have a fantastic time.
Now picture yourself in that time of your life when you were starting to care about your appearance, and you believed that what the world around you thought actually mattered. Looking in that mirror and seeing something quite different than what you saw in that ad makes you stop and think for a second. "Wait. I look nothing like that. So what," you think, "I'll give those jeans a try anyway, because maybe, just maybe, I can lose enough weight to look like that. Or maybe the jeans will just create a look." So you get the jeans and from that day forward you are constantly aware that you don't look like that model and there is something wrong with your body.
Advertising is a phenomenon in itself because it has such an amazing effect on its viewers, intended or not. Obviously, the ad mentioned above is trying to sell sex; it is saying that if you buy these jeans, you will be sexy and the center of everyone's attention. What this ad is not trying to say, however, is that you will never reach this illusion of beauty that you see before you; you can try your hardest, but you will never look like this. This ad and others like it scream out that this is society's standard, and when young, maturing women see this day in and day out, it does nothing but hurt them and increase their already budding insecurities.
Even when women are not the target consumers, they are still merely objects. In the book Reviving Ophelia, by clinical psychologist Mary Pipher, the author quotes a young female client on the topic of women in advertising. Referring to an Old Milwaukee beer ad that featured the Swedish Bikini Team, the young woman says, "Women are portrayed as expensive toys, as the ultimate recreation."
In another example in the same book, an ad for the cologne Royal Copenhagen shows a scantily clad woman kissing a man with the tag line of the ad reading, "Some things happen below the deck." (42-43, Reviving Ophelia) Pipher writes that
Less perceptive girls may miss the meaning of sexist ads...They tend to deny and oversimplify problems. They don't attempt to integrate aspects of their experience or to "connect the dots" between cultural events and their own lives. Rather than process their experience, they seal in confusion. (43)
Pipher goes on to write of a young client who tells her, "Let's face it, I'm a dog." This girl is just beginning adolescence, and she is defining herself by her physical appearance. The reality of this statement is that she had to get this idea somewhere, and that somewhere is the media.
It is a fact that advertisements have a negative impact on young female adults. After a five year study done by the American Psychological Association, it was determined that watching television is correlated with "antisocial behavior, gender stereotyping and bad grades in school. They (the APA) warned that television has become a dominant and disturbing influence on the national psyche."(Reviving Ophelia, p. 291) Although here the emphasis is television and not specifically advertising, commercials must be contributing to this decline; if that were not the case, the emphasis for this study could just have easily been the film industry instead of television.
The fact that not only advertising, but the media in general is detrimental to mental health is not something new. Even in the forties, sex was used to sell something as seemingly innocent as a cola named Squirt. In this particular advertisement, there is a young woman leaning against some sort of table on a Navy ship. She is wearing a white bikini top in order to cover her larger-than-average breasts. In one hand she holds a bottle of Squirt, which, interestingly enough, is held at chest level; next to her is a buoy with the words "Squirt Quenches Quicker." Another interesting facet to this ad is that everything (the girl's bikini, the boat, the buoy) is white, inferring innocence and purity. Lastly, there are two bottles of Squirt, and the one the model is holding is the smaller of the two; one possibility as to the reasoning behind this could have been to make the model's breasts look even bigger than without the bottle. This advertisement was copyrighted in 1947.
In another advertisement of the same era, there is a blonde girl in a skimpy yellow bathing suit. This is another ad for a cola company named Dub-L-Valu Root Beer. This advertisement is just as risquÈ as the previous one; the model in this ad, in her little yellow outfit, is stretched out, leaning against some sort of object with her toe in some water. The slogan here is, "You've tried the rest, now try the best. King of Root Beers." Even more than fifty years ago, desires were sold instead of products themselves, with subliminal negative messages towards women.
Men are prone to be the subject of advertising ploys just as easily as women are, but the way in which they are targeted shows once again that women are seen in a negative light. In "A Gentleman and a Consumer," Diane Barthel compares advertising techniques geared toward men as opposed to women. She writes, "Whereas the feminine model is based on passivity, complacency, and narcissism, the masculine model is based on exactingness and choice."(Signs of Life, p. 145) The author quotes semiotician Jean Baudrillard as saying, "She (woman) never enters into direct competition....If she is beautiful, that is to say, if this woman is a woman, she will be chosen. If this man is a man, he will choose his woman as he would other objects/signs."(145) Barthel writes that advertisers use power as the driving force to sell to men. Anything even remotely feminine will scare the male consumer away. Barthel writes that even "male"scents have masculine names: "musk, woods, spices, citrus,"etc. Not only does this article by Barthel suggest that Western society is ruled by male dominance, it also suggests female complacency.
Barthel also writes that women are now starting to appear in commercials "in a more active role."(SoL, 151) This I find a bit ironic, due to the fact that the women in these roles that are supposedly "more active"are simply selling sex. In one example, Barthel describes a scene where "the man slouches.... The woman leans aggressively toward him. He: "Do you always serve Tia Maria... or am I special?' She: "Darling, if you weren't special, you wouldn't be here.'"(SoL, 151) Yes, this woman is in control of the situation, and the only reason she is in control is to sell her physical self. Once again, a woman is valued for something over which she is a mere victim of heredity; I would expect something better than this from a commercial where a woman is taking a "more active" role!
The fact that this idea, that women have to look and act a certain way, is a reflection of society that is completely negative, and it is not likely to soon change. Instead of focusing on these types of ads, women need to disregard these insecurities and move ahead. Margaret Mead, as Mary Pipher writes, "defines strength as valuing all those parts of the self whether or not they are valued by the culture."(RO, p. 264)
Perhaps women should look at how men have responded to advertisers' attempts to hook them. Although advertisers use some clever tactics with men, Barthel points out in her article that "There are no men's beauty and glamour magazines with circulations even approaching those of the women's magazines."(SoL, p. 144) This alone is proof that women seek the sole source of power that they know through something over which they really have relatively little control, and that is physical appearance, whereas men, Barthel writes, get their strength through materialism, something they can control.
Women are not weak; it is because the techniques used by advertisers are so different between the sexes that women appear vulnerable. As Barthel writes, power is the key for men, and in Western Society, this rules above all else. This power also equates to many materialistic goods, as mentioned earlier. When men buy, they do so to prove their power. Barthel uses the example of men and their cars. She writes, "...as with men, so with cars. "Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely" (Maserati). Not having the money to pay for a Maserati, to corrupt and be corrupted, is an embarrassment." (SoL, p. 147) The more power, the better the man; the more masculine is even better still.
When men are caught buying self-improvement products, as is the trend now, according to Barthel, they show an obvious weakness because they are trying to look good to attract someone else's attention. With women, we are not only told time after time after time that this is acceptable-- to attract another's attention based on our looks alone-- but also that it is our only way in which we can get power, by dependence.
Look at the women who seek independence on their own merit. Hilary Rodham Clinton is a fine example; Pipher writes that women like Rodham Clinton are referred to as a "bitch"simply because they (independently powerful women) are "competent, healthy adult(s)."(RA, 39)
It is difficult to find a commercial trying to sell the independent, powerful woman on television even today, twenty years after the feminist movement. When we see these commercials, the woman is never completely free; she is so overly stressed by having a job, children, and a husband to look after that she needs Calgon to "take her away." Even in this situation, there is an underlying dependency on outside stress relievers. In today's world, an independent woman is a woman too busy to think, thus explaining Hamburger Helper, Tide with Bleach! and so many other products created to save time. Notice that all of the domestic products sold on television are geared towards women, because everyone knows women are the more domesticated of the supposedly blessed union a married couple has.
After all of these years, advertisers have shown women in almost every mode possible: domesticated, happy housewife, brainless beauty, and the "free" woman, with her job, her husband, and her family after which she looks. It amazes me, though, that after all of these stereotypes, advertisers have yet to consistently come up with a realistic woman that will leave no hang-ups or illuminate unnecessary insecurities.
This is not to say that every advertisement in the media pop culture of today casts a stereotype of women. Just today I was watching television when I saw an ad with four women; diversity was an apparent key, with one African-American middle-aged professional, one Caucasian college student, another Caucasian mother, and a young twenty-something Asian woman on the screen. In separate monologues, each gave their own interpretation of this great new product, and how it has positively affected their lives. It does not take a stretch of the imagination to figure out what this product was: Tampax Tampons. There is no need to glamorize this sort of product because it is impossible to do so.
Even if there are more examples of advertisements that shed a positive light on women, there still are not enough. Simply stated, advertisements today create a standard of physical beauty that is unattainable for both men and women. Sadly, young women reaching adolescence are hit the hardest with these subliminal messages. Until people realize that the physical appearances seen in magazines and on television are completely out of anyone's reach, we will all continue to strive with a false sense of hope.