Advertising and the Body: For this assignment, you are asked to watch the video Killing Us Softly 4 by Jean Kilbourne. After viewing the video, look through recent popular magazines, hardcopies or on the Internet, and see if you can find advertisements that objectify women in order to sell a product. Or watch some TV commercials or browse the Internet or YouTube for some current ads. You can look for beer commercials; commercials for food, chocolate; detergents or any house cleaning products. Study these images in the context you have chosen, then write a short paper (about 2-3pages) about how advertising objectifies women in order to sell products, and how this objectification creates “the sexualization of culture.”
This assignment asks you to go one step further, by examining the influence of advertising on you personally and your self-worth, but also how you believe advertising affects other women and men. Include your ad with your essay. You are required to use assigned course readings (linked articles) to support your argument.
In the Study Guide to Killing Us Softly 4, there are some helpful questions that might assist you with this assignment. I selected a few below, and modified some to pertain specifically to our lesson. Others can be found at the following online address: www.mediaed.org/assets/products/241/studyguide_241.pdf
1 What effect(s), if any, do you think the objectification of women’s bodies has on the Western culture? Do you think the effects are different in the Canadian multicultural context? Explain.
2 Jean Kilbourne states “turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step toward justifying violence against that person.” What do you think she means by this? Do you agree with her reasoning? Why or why not? How does the ad you have chosen relate to Kilbourne’s reasoning? Explain.
3 Why do you think that women are objectified more often than men are? Kilbourne explains that the consequences of being objectified are different – and more serious – for women than for men. Do you agree? How is the world different for women than it is for men? How do objectified images of women interact with those in our culture differently from the way images of men do? Why is it important to look at images in the context of the culture?
4 How is sexuality depicted in relation to race, class, age, ableness? Who is made to feel more desirable, powerful and superior? How are other races depicted?
5 What language does usually accompany the ad? What stories does the ad tell about women and their current role in society?
Throughout your written analysis, be sure to make clear and specific reference to the images you selected, the approximate timeframe in which they appeared / broadcasted, and please submit these images (or links to them) with your paper. You can refer to 1 or all 5 questions listed above, or others found in the online Study Guide, and/or you can add other questions to answer to, as long as you use your feminist understanding to reflect on your ad.
Assigned course reading:
Lesson 4: The “Sexualization of Culture” in Advertising
In the second lesson, we examined some of the stereotypical representations of women in popular culture from the 1950s to 1980s. In this lesson, we consider how advertising continues to exert a tremendous influence on the lifestyle choices we make, as it plays on our most basic unconscious instincts. Yet more importantly, advertising continues to stratify the Western world in two: those who have the (financial) power to buy the advertised products; and those who do not have it, and are (financially) disempowered. This classist divide, which equates desire with power, becomes even further accentuated on a global level, especially when Western products (along with their advertisements) are imported in non-Western countries. Behind products and advertisements, there are ideologies and cultural beliefs that are being sold, beliefs that speak about certain societal norms of who is deemed “desirable”, “attractive” or “worth it” of being successful, happy, forever young, beautiful etc. In this lesson, we will see what kind of culture advertising creates, and what meanings do they construct in the images represented? Let us turn now to the influence of advertising.
The Influence of Advertising
Undoubtedly the influence of mass media on our lives is profound. Of all types of media, advertising has perhaps the most powerful effect, pervading almost every aspect of daily life. The world of advertising is in a constant process of becoming; it is a fluid process that has drastically changed since it has been first used in 1704 (“Ad Age,” 1999). From ads in newspapers, to ads on billboards, at bus stops, or in the buses, to ads in the university halls or in the washrooms, to ads on Facebook, or any site you browse on the Internet, to Netflix, or other apps you might use, advertising has become an intrinsic part of our lives. Even though some of us may still feel that we can rationally and consciously resist and engage critically all ads on a regular basis, advertising still has the potential to exert a significant influence on our thoughts, attitudes, perceptions and actions, mostly at an unconscious level. This is one of the main arguments made by the well-known feminist critique, Jean Kilbourne (2012), in her new book Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel. There she writes: “Far from being a passive mirror of society, advertising is an effective and pervasive medium of influence and persuasion, and its influence is cumulative, often subtle, and primarily unconscious” (p. 67). Equally pervasive and invasive is the role that advertising plays in the construction of both Western and non-Western collectivities, communities or national imaginaries. In all instances, – at an individual, local and global level – advertising has the potential to influence or destroy various aspects of human life and its capacity to interact meaningfully with each other. As Sut Jhally (2008), another well-known advertising critic notes, in a somewhat apocalyptic tone, “20th century is the most powerful and sustained system of propaganda in human history and its cumulative cultural effects, unless quickly checked, will be responsible for destroying the world as we know it. As it achieves this it will be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of non-western peoples and will prevent peoples of the world from achieving true happiness. Simply stated, our survival as a species is dependent upon minimizing the threat from advertising and the commercial culture that has spawned it” (para. 1).
Some Strategies Used in Advertising
One strategy used in advertising is to manufacture unhappy consumers. In the documentary entitled “The Ad and the Ego” (1997) (whose full transcript you can find online at this address: www.webpages.uidaho.edu/mickelsen/Media%20Readings/Ad%20and%20Ego.htm) Bernard McGrane argues there that one of the main functions of advertising has become “the production of discontent in human beings.” He notes, “One of the sub-texts in all advertising is you are not OK; you are not OK the way you are; things are bad; you need help; you need salvation, and in that sense advertising is designated to generate endless self-criticism, to generate all sorts of anxieties, all sorts of doubts, and then to offer the entire world of consumer goods as salvation. That’s where salvation rests, anything and everything that you can buy” (retrieved from the section “Manufacturing Consumers” (00:09:14) Punctuation was slightly modified to better fit the written context). Advertising thus does not create happy consumers, but rather unhappy ones, and its function is not a therapeutic one, as McGrane notes. Rather, advertising is intended to “generate an inner sense of conflict with ourselves” (McGrane, 1997). So making people feel the constant stress and anxiety of not being “attractive”, “desirable” or “fashionable” enough is what convinces people, in general, to buy things they otherwise wouldn’t.
This “production of discontent” inadvertently helps in creating another effective advertising strategy: that is, the sexualization of products. To alleviate our feelings of “discontent” or “inner conflicts,” advertising proposes the therapy and pleasure of sexual fantasies. We are all familiar with products advertised in very explicit sexual terms. We only need to take a quick look at a few of them. Consider this ad for Converse, showing a young woman, infantilized and strapped into a Converse shoe, sucking seductively on a lollipop. To see the ad, click here:
Consider as well these extremely controversial American Apparel ads, showing women’s body parts, in very dehumanizing and degrading positions. To see some of these ads, click here: www.americanapparel.net/photovideo/photo/
All these scenes are unfortunately everywhere in popular culture, to one degree or another, and it has become common knowledge that advertising uses sex to sell products. For many feminist critics, as Rosalind Gill (2009) argues, this strategy in advertising is “cause for alarm,” and a signal of the “degradation and profanity of popular culture,” which requires “urgent feminist concern” (p. 138). Gill takes this need for urgent feminist intervention in the ways in which popular culture portrays women a step further, in her attempt to examine the tenets of the “sexualization of culture” and to propose alternative ways of addressing and responding to advertising. Her article “Beyond the “Sexualization of Culture” Thesis: An Intersectional Analysis of ‘Sixpacks,’ ‘Midriffs,’ and ‘Hot Lesbians’ in Advertising,” is listed for today’s readings.