What About Us? A Look At Hegemonic Patriarchy in Advertisements by Michelle Simone
Most people think ads do not affect them. However, Jean Kilbourne in her new film “Killing Us Softly III” states that the advertising agency spends $180 billion dollars a year to persuade consumers to buy products. Would you spend $180 billion dollars on something that did not work? Advertisers wouldn’t either. Advertising does work, that is why advertising is such a big business. The average American is exposed to 3,000 ads a day (Killing). So, how can one ad stand out amongst thousands? An ad needs to catch your attention to standout; it needs to elicit a response. Many ads do this by using sex to attract our attention; most often the sex lure comes from the image of a woman. She sells the product through the use of sex by becoming a sex object, an object of desire, an object. This is not a new approach; advertisers have used sex to sell products as far back as the 19th century.
When looking at women in 19th century advertisements and comparing them to the women in advertisements today, it becomes obvious that only minor changes have taken place. Looking at past advertisements we can see how women were portrayed in society historically. Alessandra and Luigi Manca believe that ad analysis helps a society recognize and “organize the ways in which we understand gender relations” (57).
According to the book A History of Women in the West, the 19th century harbored three feminine stereotypes, “the madonna, the seductress, and the muse” (Duby, Perrot 246). The madonna represented the religious, motherly figure; the seductress was a sexual temptress; the muse was “an allegorical figure or the embodiment of an idea rather than a specific person” (Duby, Perrot 247). These categories later narrowed into two stereotypes of women: the “traditional” woman and the “nontraditional” woman. The traditional woman was “normal, orderly and reassuring;” the nontraditional woman was “deviant, dangerous, and seductive” (Duby, Perrot 247). Ads give a set of social values and set standards of what is considered normal. They “portray goals and ideals to be pursued” (Manca 56). For women the ideals and goals to be pursued created a dichotomy with only one valued resolution, become the traditional woman.
The image of the traditional woman was reinforced by 1830s magazines which “elicited specific female audiences and induced new visual identities” to women (Duby, Perrot 258). The magazines contained advertisements aimed at women, which not only sold products but also sold identities through the purchase of the product advertised (Duby, Perrot 259). The traditional woman “did much more than reflect ideals of beauty; [she] constituted models of behavior” Duby, Perrot 247). In the 1830s women were seldom, if ever, depicted as doing anything but standing around, as decorative objects, or in a domestic setting doing domestic work (Duby, Perrot 310-311). By portraying this image ads defined what was desirable and acceptable, what it was to be feminine (Manca 57).
According to Jan Kurtz in “Dream girls: Women in advertising,” 1920s advertisers began focusing on the feeling a product was going to give the consumer and less on the product itself. While some ads showed “active women in control of their lives” it was still common for ads to communicate that even independent women should take time out of their day to “pursue domestic skills” (“Dream”). A decade later, advertisers almost strictly used women (sex appeal) to sell products. Frances Donelson observed that women’s bodies were advertised as “objects to be used to provide pleasure to men on demand” (409). This was the beginning of overt sexual innuendo in advertisements.
The author of “Madison Avenue versus Ã«The Feminine Mystique:’ How the Advertising Industry Responded to the Onset of the Modern Women’s Movement,” states that advertisers in the late 1970s embraced the women’s liberation movement and claimed women could gain power and individualism through products. This pejorative action trivialized the women’s movement (Craig).
Advertisers began communicating the message that even though women are now “liberated and deserve equal rights” they still need to use products to be beautiful, feminine, and desirable (Craig). Both the traditional and nontraditional woman were visible in advertisements during the Ã«70s “often causing a schizophrenic view of what it [was] to be a Ã«real woman’” (“Dream”).
The 1990s revitalized the 1970s liberal ads with the “grrrl power” movement. Steven Heller explains that girl power ads are sexualized and more often than not portray women “as the empowered party girl and the proud hooker” (143). According to the book Can’t Buy My Love by Jean Kilbourne, the message advertisers give women is still the same as it was before the ’70s feminist movement, “the emphasis is always on being desirable, not on experiencing desire” (148).
An excellent example of Kilbourne and Heller’s statements is my artifact. I have chosen to analyze an overtly sexual ad for the hair care product brand: “Bin10se” (be intense). The “Bin10se” ad is a good example of the “empowered party girl/ proud hooker” persona; it also shows the value placed on women to be desired, not to experience desire.
I found the postcard-sized “Bin10se” advertisement in Chico California’s Tower Records store. The ad is for a beauty product called: “Extreme Control Styling Gel.” The advertisement features the product, a man, a woman, and the “Bin10se” slogan: “we give good head.” The top of the ad pictures a woman’s head and shoulders. The woman has blond hair that is going in several directions. She is wearing dark black eye makeup, dark red lipstick, and a shiny black shirt. The woman looks like she could be out at a nightclub. Her mouth is very wide open and her eyes are squinting, she looks like she could be laughing or screaming. Behind her is an aqua background and beside her head is the word “cool.” She is looking at the hair gel that is on the right of the postcard. The hair gel is pictured as being the same size as the woman’s head. Below the woman is an image of a man’s head and shoulders. He has brown hair that is sticking up slightly. He appears to not be wearing a shirt. He is looking to the left and is presented with an emotionless face. The man is placed behind a yellow background; by his head is the word “drool.” Separating the man from the woman is the company’s slogan, “we give good head,” in large white letters on a red background. This slogan attracts attention with its double entendre slogan and so accomplishes its advertising job; however, who do you think this ad is targeting? After reading the slogan “we give good head,” one would assume the target audience is men. What other audience would be interested in such a direct reference to fellatio? Nonetheless, this is not the audience for this ad. The audience is women. Why does this ad attract women? Why does “Bin10se” choose to target women with a slogan that references fellatio? Those are the questions I will attempt to answer using the feminist rhetorical criticism technique.
According to Sonja Foss in the text Rhetorical Criticism, feminist criticism examines how advertisers capitalize on the intrinsic gender inequality of our society. Feminist criticism is rooted in this inequality acknowledging that we live in a patriarchal society were “men dominate women so that women’s interests are subordinated to those of men, and women are seen as interior to men” (Foss 166). These notions are appropriate to include in my advertisement analysis. The intentional read of this ad is to attract our attention for brand recognition; however, the oppositional read goes beyond this view. This ad is not trying to sell sex, it is trying to sell the product but the persuasion used, stands as evidence for the hegemonic foundation of our society (Kilbourne 268). Gender and Utopia in Advertising states that, “the significance of understanding media representations of women is that these images [Ã–] help to organize the ways in which we understand gender relations” (Manca 57). Today, in the 21st century, the traditional woman has diminished from the popular culture, replaced by the nontraditional woman who is now viewed as culturally acceptable.
Ads give a set of social values, they set a standard for what is considered normal, and “portray goals and ideals to be pursued” (Manca 56). Our society has uncritically accepted male values and goals without representing the female perspective (Manca 19, Foss 166). The only implied pleasure in the ad is the pleasure of men even though the ad is targeting women.
The woman is to identify herself with the product- the woman and the product are presented with similar characteristics; she and the product are the same size and positioned both at the top of the ad separated from the man. The product and the woman embody the same characteristics: cool, stylish, and a giver of “good head.” The audience is made to believe there is no difference between the woman and the product; they are one in the same. She identifies with the product, signifying its existence by looking at it (unlike the man who is looking away from the product). Both the woman and the product are presented as objects that provide “good head.” According to Alessandra and Luigi Manca, “advertisers seek to create a structure in which statements about objects are transformed into statements about human relationships. In the process, advertisements provide us Ã«with a structure’ in which we, and those goods, are interchangeable” (62). Since the woman and the object are one in the same, the woman is only as good as the object; therefore, becoming an object herself. She is an object for the sexual gratification of men. “Women’s bodies are glorified as sex objects to be used to provide pleasure to men on demand” (Donelson 409). Saying a woman is an object dehumanizes and devalues her. The woman becomes devoid of perspective and desires. The patriarchy in our society is demonstrated thought this view. When a woman is presented as an object she is treated as an object. Being an object the only value a woman can have is the pleasure or service she is able to give to the man. An object is devoid of emotion, agency, and desire.
When examining the slogan: “we give good head,” it says nothing about the woman receiving any sexual pleasure. In American society “women have not been encouraged to enjoy their own bodies” (Donelson 409). According to the essay “Clarence, William, Iron Mike, Tailhook, Senator Packwood, Spur Posse, MagicÃ– And Us” in the book Reading Women’s Lives, “women’s sexual agency, women’s sense of entitlement to desire, is drowned out by the incessant humming of male desire [Ã–]” (Kimmel 85). The product sells the idea that the woman is not good enough (not valued) on her own and can only be good enough (valued) if she gives good oral sex. The message of the ad is: if you want a man to like you, to want you, to be of value to him you need to “give good head.” The way for a woman to become desirable (valued) is to buy the product that can improve her sexual performance. Purchasing the product will enable the woman to give “good head” like the product and so become valued (Berger 293).
Another way the ad tells the woman she isn’t valued is through the use of the rebellious persona the female in the ad displays. This rebellion is shown by the way the woman is dressed, the expression she is making, the nontraditional hair style she has, the dark makeup, and the text by her head that says: “cool.” Today, rebellion is valued- it is cool. The audience is told that providing good oral sex is necessary to be rebellious (and so cool) like the woman in the ad. By presenting the woman as cool she becomes valued. This reinforces the idea that giving oral sex to a man is cool (valued). Since “men define the norm which women are judged,” the ad appeals to women who want to be perceived as valuable to society (Donelson 39).
Ads over time have accepted the nontraditional woman who was viewed as “deviant, dangerous, and seductive” into society. The nontraditional woman is the rebellious woman of today. The rebellious woman is now the dominant image in ads targeting women of the 21st century.
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Kimmel, Michael S. “Clarence, William, Iron Mike, Tailhook, Senator Packwood, Spur Posse, MagicÃ– And Us.” Reading Women’s Lives. Ed. Mary Margaret Fonow. 2nd ed. Boston: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2001. 81-99.
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Manca, Alessandra and Luigi Manca, eds. Gender & Utopia in Advertising: A Critical Reader. Lisle: Procopian Press, 1994.