Adventures in Advertising

August 5, 2009

If there’s one cultural force that has the strongest effect on our ideas of what is normal and acceptable, I’d say that advertising is pretty much it. The lovely and talented Jean Kilborne has been talking about this for many years now:

She is so smart.

So, what with advertising being one of the major ways our culture is created and replicated, it would seem that some analysis of common messages in advertising makes sense, if, you know, we want to have some understanding of the world around us.

Somehow, though, many people seem steadfastly against any sort of media analysis, and argue in particular against analysis of advertising. Most commonly, they will argue one of four points:

1) Advertising does not affect behavior, or its impact is trivial.

2) There is no particular power structure being created or reinforced by advertising—it is simply a value neutral attempt to sell products by any means necessary.

3) Social context is irrelevant to understanding the meaning and impact of a given advertisement.

4) Any objection an oppressed individual has to an advertisement on the grounds that it reinforces their oppression is evidence of a psychological or psychiatric problem on the part of that individual.

Of course, these objections are not expressed in precisely these words. They’ll sound more like this:

1) “I don’t pay attention to advertising.” See, also: “Are you saying that advertisements cause [social problem x]? That’s ridiculous!”

2) “What do you expect? Sex sells.” See, also: “White people/straight people buy more stuff, so advertising is naturally aimed at them.”

3) “You’re making a big deal out of nothing. It’s just a commercial.”

4) “You’re just jealous because that model is prettier than you.” See, also: “You see oppression everywhere. Why are you so [insert character flaw here]?”

Alright then. Let’s knock ’em down one at a time.

1) Advertising does not affect behavior.

I hear this argument, and the extreme force required to maintain such a state of denial—which pulsates from any individual who can make this statement with a straight face—threatens to make my brain ooze out of my ears.

Are. you. fucking. kidding?

Really? REALLY?

Advertising does not affect attitudes and behavior?

Let us contemplate this sentiment.

The idea that advertising, a medium specifically designed to affect attitudes and behavior, and which continues to exist only because it effectively affects attitudes and behavior, is irrelevant to our, uh… attitudes and behavior, is not just naive and ridiculous. It’s fuckin’ dangerous. If we have no analysis of how we are being manipulated by advertising, we are all the more easily manipulated… Into buying jeans or carbonated sugar water, maybe, but also buying elected officials, government policies, jingoism, wars…

A population with no ability to know propaganda when they see it is a population just waiting for a beloved daddy dictator to sweep away their worries.

Advertising affects how we think and what we do. It does this even if we are the most socially aware, thoughtful people in the world. I can pull all kinds of critical theory out of my butt when I look at an American Apparel ad, and on a conscious level, I can tear it apart. But I’ve been socialized into this culture, with all its fucked up beauty standards and its reinforcement of the worthlessness of women who are not appealing to the male gaze. So when I look at an American Apparel ad, on a visceral level I will be reminded that I am not good enough. Will never be good enough. I am completely conscious of the fact that this manipulation is happening, but that doesn’t mean the manipulation doesn’t work. Because I’m conscious of what is happening, I won’t buy American Apparel products. But what I will buy, however much I wish I could avoid it, is a little bit of the sense of worthlessness they are selling. Worthlessness is always the first thing an advertisement based on oppression sells you. Then they tell you that you need to buy the product to fix the worthlessness. You can decolonize your mind to the point where you see the manipulation for what it is and reject it, but there is no escaping the fact that some manipulation will occur, because that is what an advertisement is designed to do.

2) There is no particular power structure being created or reinforced by advertising.

Okay, first? There is always a power structure being created and reinforced. Humans are social animals. Social animals create power structures to allow them to cooperate. The power structures may be democratic or authoritarian, cooperative or coercive, just or unjust, but they have to be there. Otherwise, we would be completely unable to interact with each other. I am deeply suspicious of anyone who attempts to obscure the workings of power in any aspect of life. Power is there in our private relationships, in the workplace, in political life… you name it. Those who try to hide that fact, or who avoid addressing it, are usually the people who are unfairly benefiting from the current power structure, and they’re usually trying to screw someone else over. Creating transparent, fair power structures takes lots of very conscious work. It’s not something that happens by itself, and it definitely doesn’t happen by ignoring the fact that power exists.

Second, advertising absolutely works to create and reinforce white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Take, for example, the very common depiction of women of color as sexy sexy animals:


What does an image like this inspire in us? First, I would say it asks us to look at Ciara. The fact that she is not looking back at us tells us, through visual language, that it is okay to look at and judge her. I’d go further and say that, through the vulnerable, presentational visual language of her pose, the ad asks us to look at her as a desirable sexual object. So essentially, the ad tells us to look at Ciara through the eyes of a man who wants to have sex with Ciara, regardless of our actual identity. Her pose emphasizes her availability for penetration, which makes clear that we, as the viewer, should identify with a male gaze, not a homosexual female gaze. The fact that she doesn’t look back at us inspires us to think only of our own judgment of and reaction to her, and asks us to avoid thinking of, for example, Ciara’s own desires. Or hopes, fears, likes, dislikes… In short, her humanity.

The image also plays into a very, very old storyline in our culture: that of people of color (and women) as animals. This was the justification for slavery and Jim Crow laws. Eugenicists tried to prove white superiority by claiming that people of color were closer to monkeys than white people.

Just ask me what I think of the Broadway version of the Lion King. I have things to say, I tell you.

The concept of women of color as animalistic “exotic beauties,” rather than “regular” (read: white) women, which is what such representations play to, implies that women of color are not just normal people. Instead, their racial and ethnic identity is primary, while any of that pesky individual humanity of theirs is secondary or irrelevant. It also implies that their beauty is a special treat, not the real ideal. Not the kind of beauty we usually value. Not the kind of beauty we really value. White beauty.

It’s worth noting that in a culture where whether a woman is valued by others is completely tied up in how attractive she is considered by conventional standards, being labeled less attractive has important consequences for women. For their personal lives. For how they are treated, in everything from school to employment to interpersonal relationships. For their sense of self-worth.

And, most painfully: for whether they find love, which I’d say is about as important as consequences get.

So the ad eroticizes female vulnerability and male domination, encourages us to identify with a straight white male view of the world as the “objective” and “normal” way of seeing, plays into racist ideas of women of color as incomplete humans, reinforces unrealistic and racist beauty standards, and, it must be said, has Ciara in a cage.

I would say that such an ad reinforces white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Now, to address objection #3 (Social context is irrelevant to understanding the meaning and impact of a given advertisement), that wouldn’t matter so much if this was the only ad of its kind. But if we get the same messages over and over again, we might start to believe them. We might even absorb them so deeply that we wouldn’t notice them. Like fish with water. That sort of thing.




Enough said.

4) Any objection an oppressed individual has to an advertisement on the grounds that it reinforces their oppression is evidence of a psychological or psychiatric problem on the part of that individual.

The technique of silencing someone’s opinions by stating that they come out of some sort of character flaw or lack on the part of that individual is, above all, a completely shady rhetorical trick. No matter what you’re disagreeing about, ad hominem attacks should not fly. They don’t address the issue being raised, they reflect an unwillingness to engage in honest debate, and beyond that, they’re just plain mean-spirited.

Besides, oppression pretty much relies on the ability and willingness of those in positions of privilege to deny the value of oppressed people. In oppressive systems, there will always be culturally sanctioned ways of doing this. For example, the belief that women should not hold positions of power is often justified with the claim that we are “too emotional” and “irrational.” So what will the ready-made claim be when some of us start saying that maybe men don’t actually deserve to hold every position of power in the world, and that maybe we should be allowed to have some power too?

Why, we’re being irrational, of course!

I’ve been around the feminist block a few times, and I’ve been called a lot of names for challenging people’s misogyny. I’ve been told that I’m dogmatic, self-righteous, judgmental, irrational, hysterical, narcissistic, humorless, too young to understand, too angry, too idealistic, too pessimistic, just struggling with my own insecurity… Blah fucking blah.

Sometimes, I’m all of those things. So what? That doesn’t make anything I have to say untrue or irrelevant. Show me evidence that advertising does not create and reinforce oppression and I’ll listen. Give me a load of psychobabble about what’s wrong with me and I see no reason to engage in discussion.

I’ll leave you with a Diesel Ad that I’m sure will have no impact of any sort, on anyone, via Racialicious:

Diesel Ad

I think we’re done here.