Saturday, March 13, 2010

The advertising culture of today: what's the alternative?

Today’s cultural landscape is shaped by the Internet, focused on pleasing me-first-me-second-me-third, and defined by the I-want-it-now attitude. That means that information and media are easy to access, and its main purpose is usually to boost or protect our own egos constantly. Thus advertisements today must attack consumers on every possible front and often, because the consumers don’t stay still and there are many more opportunities. The economics and the medium evolve but like newspapers, radio and TV before, the point remains to sell you something in exchange of “free” media content. That’s why Google, a company that significantly relies on Internet ad revenue to be successful, is invested in making sure everybody has access to the web. So what’s the benefit for all of us? More choices. However, even within all these different messages, the basic strategy for advertising companies remains the same: study the consumer’s weakness (what their product can improve) and exploit it by making it more glaring (convincing the customer they need to be better) and providing a solution. As we saw in our readings, this starts early in consumers’ life, with ads created to draw a clear line between boys and girls, as Danae Clark explains in Commodity Lesbianism to be able to properly identify and eventually profit from these groups. As young consumers grow up, the message becomes more specific and profitable: for boys it evolves from playing with toy cars and buff action figures to eventually equating power with owning sport cars or having a chiseled body. For young girls the progression is from cooking toys and pretty skinny dolls, to becoming dutiful housewives and equating the skinny-white-blonde look with pretty and desirable. Other messages are mixed in with these stereotypes, like maintaining a patriarchal society where the male dominates and acts, and the female is dominated and passive. These ideas have become ingrained in our culture, conditioning consumers to expect certain images in ads, and of course, companies have invested interests in maintaining the status quo. We don’t expect to see an overweight woman in a bikini attracting a man, or for a group of females to be in a dominant position with a defenseless male in a powerless position. We are more likely to see a tall skinny woman selling any product to the full range of women that are all shapes and sizes, and the interaction with men in ads are usually of seduction, objectification or submissiveness.

I think a good place to start changing the messages we see out there is to poke fun at the unattainable physiques that are deemed desirable, like in this picture of a too skinny to be alive model. This makes the point that too skinny is unhealthy and potentially life-threatening, and while it’s humorous it’s also a dark humor that conveys that this is something serious.

Another way to turn these strategies around is to focus on unconventional role models that have proven that they can be talented and embraced by the mainstream media without the attributes that are deemed desirable. We’ve gotten great recent examples in the movie industry with both Jennifer Hudson and Mo’Nique winning recent Best Supporting Actress Oscars for roles portrayed with their natural bigger physiques. Specifically Mo’Nique has made it a point throughout her career to be the voice for females that are plus sized and can also be sexy, culminating with a successful show called “Mo’nique’s F.A.T. Chance” which stands (both figuratively and literally) for being both Fabulous and Thick (more on

Another example is how Jennifer Lopez brought interest from the mainstream to women with curves, almost single handlely turning the mainstream stereotype of the “big butt” around and making it acceptable and desirable for all demographics. Maybe Kim Kardashian wouldn’t be as relevant and famous if Jennifer Lopez didn’t change the attitude towards that figure for the mainstream. This still objectifies women, making one part of their body the focus, but at least it broadens the perception of what body types are acceptable, and we are not talking about skinny white blonde females representing the ideal sexy look.

What’s important about these examples is that we are taking people that are not necessarily what the media is portraying every day, and making them relevant enough that the advertisers eventually will have to try their hands marketing around their image in some way. I believe that more role models that normal women can relate to will go a long ways towards decreasing the power and reach of the pervasive dominant messages that are featured in today’s ads.

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