Women in advertising

By Kay She

From Barbie to Britney Spears, this generation has grown up in a society pervaded by blonde hair, skinny waists and voluptuous breasts.

On Thu., Nov. 1, a campus-sanctioned club, Feminist Initiative Recognizing Equality, hosted their annual ad-busting workshop and seminar to raise awareness of the unrealistic portrayals in media and advertisements.

Living in a Western society, many recognize a prescribed body image celebrating women who are thin, beautiful and often photoshopped. Experts and activists have continually put forward that this perpetuated standard of desirability is narrow in both a literal and figurative sense, and those who do not meet the standard often feel compelled to achieve the desired traits by means such as diet, exercise and cosmetic surgery.

“I think the workshop is really empowering for women,” said FIRE president Alex Judd. “It puts words and contexts to these abstract ideas or feelings you get when you look at ads.”

FIRE places an important emphasis on women and how they are especially affected by advertising. U of C women’s studies professor Carol-Ann Berenson agreed there is reason why beauty and fashion advertisements target women more than men.

“I do think in a patriarchal society, women are taught that their value is connected to what they look like and that makes women more susceptible to advertising,” said Berenson.

Although Berenson noted there is a problematic trend emerging in how men are increasing being targeted by advertisements as well, the seminar was focused on women.

“In our workshop, we pick apart tons of advertising, specifically if they relate to women, sexuality, class, race [and] all sorts of issues dealing with power and privilege,” said Judd.

As the women’s movement continues to urge consumers in becoming more critical of the information around them, women are becoming more aware of the unattainable body standards advertisements dictate. Recognizing this, advertisers have diverged to new tactics to sell their products to women, explained Judd.

For example, Dove, a brand of beauty products for women, recently launched a “Campaign for Real Beauty,” which praises women for accepting their natural body. This would not be a contentious issue if not for the fact that Dove is owned by a larger company, Unilever, which also owns the Axe brand, a line of grooming products for men. Axe advertisements largely revolve around the image of the female being hyper-sexualized and intoxicated by the smell of Axe fragrances.

“It’s a huge contradiction!” said Judd. “The Axe ads are in stark opposition of what the Dove ads are trying to promote.”

Judd noted she didn’t think companies cared about body image.

“Advertising that is now directed to women and especially young women, uses discourses of feminism,” said Berenson. “They talk about freedom and choice and power and empowerment. It uses all the language of women’s liberation, but to sell things that keep women focused on beauty and perfection, like cosmetic surgery. It’s a method of manipulation, because they are just old messages repackaged.”

Judd added that although the company is ultimately concerned with selling the product, she believes something positive has come out of the Dove campaign even though there is an underlying motive.

“In principle, it’s a great idea,” said Judd. “This is an established brand that is addressing what is going on in advertising and rejecting it.”

The workshop not only provides a place for students to unite against unrealistic advertising, but also offered resistance ideas to fight back these media portrayals.

“Even letter campaigns can create a dialogue with advertisers,” said Judd. “As a consumer, your power lies in the fact that you can choose whether or not to support companies that are producing these kinds of advertising.”

Berenson believes the first line of resistance is to get educated.

“If we become more critical consumers of the advertisements to begin with, we can see the problems with these images,” said Berenson. “If we are more aware of this, then advertisements don’t have to affect us in the way that they might otherwise.”