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Action Project! Women in Advertisements by students at Irvine Valley College, CA

May 21th, 1998

Introduction

 

Dear readers,

The following project you are going to see is part of a class assignment in the Women’s Studies course.

The Women’s Studies must sound inappropriate to you: why study women at all? Why not study men in the Humanity class? Why no study Blacks, or Hispanics, or Asians? Women’s Studies does deal with feminine issues and feminism in the last decades of the century, but it also teaches us human issues like racism, homophobia, violence, sexual abuse, hate crimes, minority’s rights, and, inequality. The course focuses on the solutions to those issues, and what can be done to live in an equal society.

The purpose of the project was to allow us to learn what activism is. Each group in the class chose a topic and had to educate the population and make people aware of the issue. My group chose Women in Advertisements as the subject. We wanted to change the way women are portrayed in the media: weak, frail, obedient, submissive and sexually available. It is the same for men. The pictures of male model we see in the ads tell us that men have to be dark skin, muscular, hairless, strong and sexually successful. If these images are perpetuated, how can we stop rape, sexual abuse, battery, and murder?

Few advertising companies have already changed their commercial concept but there is still work to do. Our action was to get people conscious of women’s position in the media. We concentrated on magazine advertisements because we had easy access to them. The following essay is a complete report of the steps we took in the action as well as our own impression on the project. I hope you’ll enjoy it as my friends and I did.

Emilie Vu

Acknowledgment: I would like to thank the administration of IVC for allowing us to do the action on campus. Thanks to the IVC Women’s Center for their help and for framing our poster board. Special thanks to Kathy Bruin from About-Face for her wonderful ideas and support throughout the whole project. Thank you so much for your time and your web site!

 

 

 

Project

 

 

Advertisements are the most influential media in our world. They shape our ideas and affect our look and behavior. People look at pictures and tend to mimic what they see. Nowadays, advertisements depict women in a passive/submissive, almost childlike manner. This implies that women are subdued, that they need to be controlled and dominated. Or that they are not beautiful unless they resemble the models. In other words, fat, short, stubby, too tall, too skinny, different ethnicity is not attractive.

 

We as a group of feminist women want to change this trend. Our project consisted of getting people aware of how advertisements can affect the culture. Our idea was to send postcards with a letter of protest and a petition to the CEO of Gucci because of the oppressive images this company conveys. It turned out that this project became more of a personal protest rather than a class assignment. We began to incorporate our own ethical and moral values, which brought out greater devotion to the project itself. The whole process from the beginning to the end was a tremendous journey.

 

We first started by going to Barnes & Nobles bookstore to look through the various magazines to find a main focus. We tried to compare men to women’s magazines (GQ vs. Vogue), or teenage to women’s magazines (Seventeen vs. Elle.) We kept gathering ideas and it became too widespread, too broad and difficult to direct our project to one aspect. But while looking through the magazines, we came across many Gucci advertisements. These ads captured our attention because of the direct implication of violence and oppression in the images. So when we found the particular picture that we later used on the postcards, we knew what we wanted to concentrate on. However, we still had problems finding a specific task and deciding what to do with the picture. Should we write to the editor/publisher of each magazine in whi e found the ads? Or write only to magazines in particular and have them pull the ad out? We also thought just to write to Gucci. We even considered surveying the customers and employees at the Gucci store at South Coast Plaza Shopping Center for their thoughts on the advertisements. From the beginning to this point, we were so desperate to have a direction that we asked the instructor for help but still could not decide on what to do, until on day we found a web site called About-Face while searching on the Internet. This is where we got the idea to make postcards.

 

The problem now was how we would create the postcards. We needed to figure out where we could get them done, where to distribute them, who we should send them to and what should be written on them. We chose Kinko’s for printing, decided on South Coast Plaza Shopping Center for the location of our action project (because there was a Gucci store in the mall.) We got the name of the CEO of Gucci from the store and wrote this following paragraph to express our message to Pat Malone (CEO of Gucci):

 

We oppose perpetuation of women portrayed as sexual objects. Your advertisement promotes violence against women and portrays them in a sadomasochistic and submissive manner, as seen on this card. The subliminal effects of negative images in the mass media are more pervasive and persuasive than any other force in society in shaping our ideas and attitudes about love, sex, success, popularity, and normalcy. In a society where we want to teach young people that women and men are equal, it is UNACCEPTABLE to represent women the way you do it, for it preserves them myth of the dominant male. We would prefer to see women depicted in a more positive manner. We would like to see them strong, confident, professional, powerful, not anorexic, vivid, natural, dominant, not submissive to men, shown for their character, for who they are as human being, not as objects. We would appreciate your collaboration to our cause by withdrawing the advertisement shown on this card.

 

Some of the issues that blocked our progress were the complications with permission to set up a petition table at South Coast Plaza. We were denied the access to a table the day before our action was supposed to take place. Disappointed and angry, (we were p—– off!!!), we resigned to have the action on campus at IVC (Irvine Valley College). We (Emilie and Alysia) arrived on campus at 7:30 in the morning to set up our posters and our display. The project began promptly at 8 a.m. and we caught our first petitioner. To our surprise, it was a man who had first decided to stop and read our signs. He seemed very interested in the topic and wanted to know more about our cause. He immediately signed our postcard. This was only the beginning….

 

Throughout the day, we encountered and experienced numerous battles, discussions, fights, and debates with various types of people. More than fifty percent of our respondents were in favor of our cause and were more than delighted to sign the petition. However, the other half of people refused to understand our reasons for this project. Many claimed that it was wrong for us to be against the Gucci ads because they did not see anything wrong with them. Both women and men commented by saying “it’s only sex, and sex is natural”, or “this is art…. To our surprise, there were as many women as there were men who did not want to petition. Some refused to sign because they “loved Gucci” and “loved Tom Ford”, they did not understand that it was not Gucci or Tom Ford we were up against, but only the images of women portrayed in the ads.

 

We expected a peaceful outcome, but instead we were insulted, ridiculed, and yelled at. A few of our many frustrating moments came when a group of young male adults came by and took a few copies of our postcards for their “personal pleasures”, and then we found our precious cards on the floor in the restroom. We were concerned about the women who just walked by and ignored us, and a man who said that his ex-girlfriend was a Women’s Studies major and he wanted to stay away from “our kind of people”. Our worst experience of the day was when we met a woman who claimed to have a dominating presence, and felt that the women in the ads looked dominant. She would not listen to our opinions. Rather, she tried to push her opinions on us. We were upset that people like her would allow the publications of pictures that we found so offensive. This type of belief influences future generations to accept and integrate violence and pornography in their value systems.

 

Luckily, not all of the people responded to us in a negative manner. In fact, those who supported us did so in a significant way. We caused quite a commotion inside the Student Services building. There were debates going on inside which lead many workers to come out and ask us questions and sign their own postcards. Supporters were eager to know more about our topic and were even enthusiastic to help us debate with opponents. They helped to make our day easier because they helped fight our battles and for that we are extremely appreciative. Especially those from the Women’s Center at IVC who wanted to give us another chance to petition at the Health Fair on the next day. Our most gratifying moment came when we e with a recovering anorexic girl, who told us that advertisements were “more influential than we think”. She knew. If we were happy to reach anybody with our cause, it would be her. Tired but satisfied, we ended up with fifty-seven postcards signed. We obtained ninety-eight more the following day.

 

The cost of this entire project was extensive. We spent a total of $130.10–$111.60 for the color posters and postcards, $4.50 for accessories, and $14.00 on magazines. We were astonished to find out that the Women’s Center could have made our postcards for free.

 

Looking back, we should have done many things differently. We should have shown positive images of women to show a comparison and give an idea of what we wanted to see. Another image we should have shown was a stereotypical negative image of men. We regret that our research was limited, but that was due to difficulty in finding a topic and conflicting meeting times. Also, if possible, it would be interesting to videotape this type of experience to show people’s reactions though we think petitioning would have been less successful because people would have been afraid of the camera. We are proud and overjoyed with what we have accomplished with our action project. The postcards have been sent (for free, thanks Rosana!) and we are currently awaiting a response from Ms. Pat Malone. The Women’s Center on campus is planning to frame our poster board and our pictures! And we plan to have our project displayed on the Internet on the About-Face website (http://www.about-face.org)!!

 

Some might ask if we would do this again. We assure you we would (but with more preparation). We hope that with this project, we motivate others to defend women and preserve the positive and healthy image that they deserve.

 

REFERENCES:

 

Copeland, Tara. “Kilbourne Blames Advertising for Negative View of Women”.
http://serverstudent.furman.edu/Paladin/March/29/nwklbrne.htm

Kilbourne, Jean. “Still Killing Us Softly”. Video

Roberts, Rob. “Sex, Violence…and Advertising”. The Daily News, July 22,1991
http://www.screen.com/mnet/eng/med/class/teamedia/sex&vio.htm

Wren, Christopher S. “Drugged Look in Fashion Ads Angers Clinton”. The New York Times, May 22.1997
http://www.about-face.org/resources/press/nyt_058897.shtml

“Media, Advertising, & Violence Against Women”
http://www.scrippscol.edu/~dept/career/mediaviolence.htm

 

 

Our reactions

Pictured here are (left to right) Emilie Vu, Jennifer Hall and Alysia Kim.

 

 

Emilie:

 

This project has taught me toughness and perseverance. I never thought it would have been so difficult and elaborate to develop a project of this immensity. I know now what activism is all about. It is about friendship and support, but mostly it is about devotion. One can not fully achieve his/her goal if one does not show some kind of attachment to the cause. And one does not have the same satisfaction of having accomplish something without some level of devotion to the project. My experience proves this statement. I found myself very proud of what I have done. When we made those postcards, I felt completely thrilled. Those postcards were “cool”, because we made them on our own and spend so much time trying to figure out how we would design them and were they could be printed.

 

Since this was a class project, we had deadlines to meet. But if I had to do it again, I would take more time to research and prepare for the action so that it looks more professional. Our project was a little off the edge and lacked credibility. Had we had more material to present to the petitioners, like video, statistics, other pictures to compare, or a sponsor supporting or cause, I believe we could have done better and more.

 

In any case, this has been a very interesting gratifying experience, and I suggest to those who want to try themselves in activism to take their time, make sure everybody cooperates to the project, and make sure to be ready before you display anything. Be devoted to your cause and you will live the most satisfying moment of your life.

 

 

Jennifer:

 

My experience with the women and advertisements was a great experience. It is definitely an experience to be put in the books. This project came at a good time, because I was starting to forget that there are other people out there feeling the same way as I do about women in the media. This helped me to realized that they are out there and there are a lot of them out there. It also helped me to get other opinions on the matter whether they were boys or girls.

 

When we first all got together it was quite fascinating, because we could not figure out what form of advertisement to focus on, and what specifically to do with it. We were choosing between music videos, movies, news, or magazines. Since we all had access to magazines we decided to choose the magazines. Then we had our trouble on which ways to use the magazines to relate to women in advertising. Once we decided on the Gucci ads we started to rock pretty fast and smooth.

 

At first this was just a class project that held my most interest, but then at this point it turned into a group effort to try and make sure some kind of change was put into effect or thought about. I had always done my own miniature parts in the cause by not buying the magazines and voicing my opinion to whom ever, but this time it was a group. It was three other intelligent college students. This is also the point when I think the project turned into more of a personal thing for all of us. We got our money and hearts more into the project then what they many have been at the beginning.

 

I have always loved to argue and/or discuss things with people and this project gave me an opportunity to do it with a lot more then I already was. I had discussions with many people at work and home. I had heated arguments and mellow discussions. I enjoyed them all very much. I opened some eyes that were closed or just looking some where else. I learned something about some people.

 

 

Rosana:

This project has taught me a lot about myself as well as activism. When I just read the outline for the project I got nervous. But I would not trade the experience. Activism is frustrating yet fulfilling. Making the post cards and seeing the final project was amazing. So see an idea of four young women turn into something real is great. I don’t have any idea what, if any, response we will get, but just making people expand their views and their minds is worth it.

 

My own views on this subject has changed as well. If anything I am so much more aware of how women are portrayed. The best part is that I don’t have to try, it comes naturally.

 

Working in a group was different for me. It taught me togetherness, devotoin, and friendship. All in all the experience as a whole was one that I am proud of and will take with me forever.

 

 

Alysia:

 

Most of my experiences of this project is written in the actual essay itself, dealing with the action project. I must say that this whole project in its entirety has been quite a valuable and genuine learning experience for me. I still vow that every person should, at one point in their life, experience what Emilie and I had experienced that day.

 

It really goes beyond words because there is never really another chance like that where I dealt with so many different types of people all at once, and all about a topic which I held dearly in my heart. I do not believe I have ever argued with such strong-willed, stubborn (some pig-headed) people before. Most of the people actually wasted time debating about the model’s salary and that it is their own free choice so let them do what they want no matter what they do instead of discussing the matter at hand, the disgusting pictures.

 

Ever since our group met on that faithful Valentine’s Day at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Tustin, we have all faced limitless boundaries and obstacles that challenged us in the many months of our project. I grew weary when the meetings failed and we left with nothing productive. The weeks seemed to fly by and we hit a wall at South Coast Plaza; D-E-N-I-E-D!!! They denied us on the night before the day our action project was scheduled to take place. When I had found that out it was very much like a smack in the face because it was so unexpected. I could not believe that the almighty South Coast Plaza would be so afraid of our harmless, quiet petitioning. They claimed that due to the nature of the subject matter they could not approve us, but they were clearly informed since the beginning exactly what our subject matter would be. I was enraged because they wasted so much of our precious time. Time that could have been spent doing something more productive than just waiting for their reply. I became discouraged because I so dearly wanted this action to take place near the premises of the Gucci store. But, I had also wanted the action happen at Irvine Valley College because I was curious as to how the students would respond to such images.

 

Imagine my surprise! The turnout was great, but the views that some students and faculty carried really amazed and shocked me. During our Women’s Studies class presentation of our project, I told the class that I believed that nobody else in the world really thinks the way our class does. The rest of the world (with the exception of our supporters and petitioners) seemed to be blind of all these awful images that struck so much disgust in me. It was as if the images HAD to be as bold and as obvious as images of rape, or a young girl being molested. Not many made the connection between potential violence and our pictures and I must admit, that really disappointed me. Not many people even TRIED to make a connection, but to the few who did and tried to understand, I am grateful.

 

I am proud of Emilie, Rosana, Jennifer, and myself for accomplishing all that we have in the past 3 months. This is truly an experience that educated me more than I can ever say. I am extremely thankful to the Women’s Center at IVC for their strong moral and encouraging support and also for their excitement with our project. I still feel so thankful that they let us be a part of the Health Fair at their table, which let us reach so many more people and get so many more signed postcards. Not to mention the fact that they want to eternally preserve our project/movement in the Women’s Center by framing our poster board and our pictures!!! Of course, I will not end this without giving my greatest thanks to the people at About-Face who have agreed to post a copy of our postcard and our essay on the Internet. The Internet!!!! What more could I ask for!!! We now have the ability to reach so many more people than ever before.

 

I really cannot be prouder than I am because I helped create this and perhaps, hopefully, I helped perpetuate the efforts on preserving positive images of women in advertising.

 

 

 

Emilie Vu

Jennifer Hall
Alysia Kim
Rosana Nanc