What Advertising Can Teach Us

Bill Hicks once said, “If you are in advertising or marketing, kill yourself.” I disagree. Kind of.

If you had told me back in the day that I would be working for an ad agency in the not-too-distant future, I might have laughed. Advertising was antithetical to everything I identified with, and still is.  Though, now that I’m here and take delight in the fact that I can pay my bills and put food on the table, advertising has provided me with a fluency in the psychology of targeting and pinpointing what people are perceived to be on a very basic level. Scary? I’m not here to say that advertising in inherently evil, because it’s not. It’s a way of looking at things through the eyes of wanting, a fantastical presentation that is about stimulating the reptilian impulses in our brains. Knowing this and having fluency in it is a crucial step into being able to understand these images better, as well as understanding that they are very purposefully attempting to make us feel a certain way. While running the administrative details in such a place may not give me, say, the expertise of someone who has been entrenched in the field for more than 20 years, the position I have held has led me to several realizations that give truth to what advertising means and how much it actually affects us.

1. There are incredible amounts of money and analysis going into catering to you, as well as making you feel a certain way.

“The average American is exposed to about 3,000 advertising messages a day, and globally, corporations spend over $620 billion each year to make their products seem desirable and get us to buy them.” (Michael Brower, Ph.D. and Warren Leon, Ph.D., Union of Concerned Scientists)

Advertising exists so people will spend money on products. There are tables filled with folks who have been up three nights in a row to figure out what your favorite color is, if you use Twitter or Tumblr more, and can easily do so by mining your data from places like Apple, Facebook, and Google. You are a demographic, a representation of wants, dislikes, and marketable actions. You are dollar signs waiting to be spent. You are going to buy something.

2. Media literacy is a crucial survivor skill. Advertising is free education.

With media literacy, we can understand the immediate world around us, as well as our place in it. Without understanding what is being aimed at you, it will define the world and all visual geography for you. Think about how many times a day you come across an ad – whether it’s a billboard, a radio ad, a commercial, in magazines, on buses, on subways, etc. Each time we look at that ad, we are in some way absorbing the information fed to us, whether we subconsciously realize it or not. Think of any time you might have picked up a magazine and then afterwards felt the need to do something to change your appearance or to feel the same sense of liveliness that these ads inherently promise. Here’s an example of one of the most successful image rehabilitation campaigns in the U.S.

The Industrial Revolution brought about a large-scale overhaul in how products were made and accessed. This, as well as the idea of “self-consumerism,” flourished in post-WWII, after the efforts of American propaganda campaigns. Advertising, much like the manufacturing industry, had made leaps and bounds in America, leading to an industry that held more sway over where consumer dollars, now growing due to the economic boom that WWII had initiated, could be spent. Advertising was the job-recreation program of the late ’40s and ’50s, as soldiers who had been overseas during the war returned home to find that women had all but taken over their positions. Ad agencies and the U.S. government worked together on forming “morality campaigns” to publicly embed the image of “good, proper women,” leading to the rise in housewife imagery we find so prevalent in ‘5os advertising, as a way to get women to leave the workforce, replacing their vacancies with men.

The question is, what would the outcome of this campaign have been if the tools that are present now had been present back then? With advertising in every open space in our near vicinity now, think of it less as a five-second blip on your radar (because that’s all it takes to absorb it) and more a chance to build your ability to deconstruct them.

3. Sexism is indeed alive and well. It sells.

The recent Got Milk campaign? The double whammy sexist and racist Summer’s Eve adsYoplait (hell, any yogurt commercials)? The 2011 Pepsi Superbowl commercial (not to forget Groupon’s Tibet ads, but that’s another conversation)? The thousands of other examples that exist and play upon dead stereotypes?

Or how about any of this?

But let’s be honest: saying that it’s just sexism that sells is only covering one part of the larger problem. “Ism”s are big business, because they play on the familiar and don’t expect you to do any critical thinking about the ways in which things are being presented. Advertising that “works” doesn’t engage or challenge you; it reinforces what views you inherently hold about the world, keeping you comfortable, yet always “wanting.” The idea of using “sex” to sell is always appealing to whom corporations feel control the consumer dollar (men), even though women typically have more consumer purchasing power. Of course, this presentation of “sex” isn’t just targeted at men for fantasy purposes. Its also targeted at women to persist in the myth of the unattainable (ultimate beauty and hotness) and the saintly (motherhood and domesticity). If you aim to be like Gisele, there’s a product for that. If you aim to be like Martha, there’s a product for that. The gender conformity is strict, and one can see the consequences from the Got Milk campaign if ever crossing the limitations of sex queen or domestic goddess.

4. “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are more pliable.” (Mark Twain)

The misuse and misconstruing of statistics is a popular tactic to help the sale of something without looking at the actual whole. Rarely are statistics questioned, especially if backed by names like Beiersdorf, Inc. Questionable statistics can include loaded-question surveys, over-generalizations, discarding unfavorable data, data manipulation and dredging, and my all-time most-hated, biased samples (please refer to Dr. Satoshi Kanazawa’s racist Psychology Today piece). It’s hard to take data seriously if companies with special interests are paying for the research, which many do, as evidenced by skin cream companies and their claims at rejuvenation, lightening, and age-defying magic. Nivea skin creme has been in hot water due to its “scientific claims” of the use of its product as an easy body size reducer. The research came from a company called Beiersdorf, Inc., who claimed positive weight loss results from those who had used the product. This is also a stark reality of advertising – there is money in being able to hire an “expert” to gather the evidence needed.

5.  Advertising reflects back the world that advertisers think most people desire. 

One can deduce that if advertising is about playing on our desires and perceptions of the world, it’s also about what we render invisible. Representation is categorical and hierarchical, often worshiping at the idealization of hetero-normative, thin, white bodies. The advertising industry is still predominantly white, able-bodied, and male, factors that, like anything in our lives, control the decisions of what is decided as public-worthy. So not only does this create an exclusion here in our own visual culture, the same “white is right” aesthetics become a factor in globalized imagery and product catering across the world. The majority of our visual culture, what we believe we should buy or aspire to or look like, is in the hands of a few people, limiting who gets represented and how.

There are giants swaths of people trying to convince you day after day that you’ll be better in their eyes if you just buy this. If you just wear this. Like these people in this ad, you too can be young and beautiful and all the things you can never, ever be. That is the beauty and genius of the advertising industry. It has built a way of making money off hopes and desires that can be projected onto any sort of item, gaining your trust and loyalty that this brand or product will indeed fill those dreams. Disney CEO Michael Eisner once famously said, “We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make a statement. We are here to make money.” I believe every word of it.

18 thoughts on “What Advertising Can Teach Us”

  1. That women still want to wear makeup reflects a failure of the feminist movement in particular and the immaturity of our culture in general. Makeup is a mask that allows women to tap into corporate power. I don’t mean corporate as in business, but rather corporate as in the power of the group versus the individual.

    Men achieve this power by actually belonging to corporations – whether they are lodge brothers or corporate raiders. Women counter by painting their faces. Hiding physical imperfections or accentuating certain features makes sense only if the result is more power for the individual, whether sexual, social, or corporate.

    By acceding to cosmetic industry standards of beauty, women who wear makeup promote a status quo that says women are not equal to men. Men can be “cultural” just by showing up. Women, to participate in the culture, must put on a corporate mask. While a woman who uses makeup is considered “cultural,” a man who uses makeup is considered absurd. Mass media meditations on masculine makeup — like Some Like It Hot, Tootsie, and Mrs. Doubtfire — are always comedies.

      1. Makeup in the theater is a tool of the trade. Makeup in normal everyday use is a mask that continues the objectification of women and conveys the message that they are not truly human. French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss once asked a native informant why his people tatooed themselves. “Because we are not animals” was the reply. What tatoos did in that culture, makeup for women does in ours. Men don’t need makeup. When women without paint are accepted as equals we will know that the feminist movement has succeeded.

        1. Telling women that they don’t need to and shouldn’t wear makeup because men don’t isn’t actually very feminist. All you’re doing is trying to masculinize women, make them more like men. And is that what we really want? Do we really want to say for women to get equal respect as men they need to BE like men? I think that’s awfully counterproductive. Women should get respect and equal treatment REGARDLESS of how they dress or look. Mimicking men is not the answer here.

          Our CHOICE as feminists to wear makeup for fun is not the business of anyone else, including other feminists. Your CHOICE is to not wear makeup; I fully support you in that decision about YOUR self. However, I have a huge problem with you policing what women choose to do with their bodies.

        2. 1. You’re still painting with a dangerously wide brush.

          2. Levi-Strauss was NOT talking about makeup, nor gender politics, and this is NOT the same discussion. While I can see how you could draw some parallels here between the two, dropping in a theorist’s name as though that trumps the argument is simply not an acceptable tactic.

          3. I don’t appreciate you telling me which instances of my playing with makeup are acceptable and which are not; you don’t get to make that call for me or any other woman. It is hugely assumptive to presume that I wear makeup for anyone but myself. I do not. I hardly wear it at all, but I enjoy it deeply when I do.

          4. I’m sorry it has been your experience that you are not accepted as an equal unless you wear makeup. That has not been mine; it has not been the experience of a number of women I know, in a variety of industries and career paths. In my current position, I manage a team of twenty in a very public-facing role, and have never worn makeup to this job, not even for the interview. It is not a progressive workplace, it is not a progressive industry. They just don’t give a shit about makeup; they give a shit about me dressing professionally and being clean. They expect the exact same thing from the men. If anything, as a woman, I have more leeway in my wardrobe choices than my male counterparts do. I wholly agree that the makeup industry has traditionally marketed itself as a method to make women more palatable and consumable, and that that is wrong, but a product’s marketing and its use can be two wildly divergent things, as anyone with a vibrating back massager can attest to.

          5. What you hope to accomplish for feminism by alienating and scolding women for their personal choices is beyond me, but that is precisely what you are doing. I have no expectation of other women to wear or not wear makeup, because it is their body, their choice, just as mine are mine. Blanket statements about what we do with our bodies and whether or not those actions are acceptable will never be feminist statements. If we have not our agency within our own bodies, and if we do not fully and without question support that agency for all other women regardless of our personal agreement or alignment with those choices, what have we? Not feminism. Don’t try to paint your body policing with a feminist tint; that would be the true mask in this conversation. Telling a woman she is less true to herself and her own because of her choices is more objectifying than a woman making an independent choice to do what she will with her own being for her own enjoyment.

    1. Oh, I donno. I think it depends on how the person using the makeup feels. Personally, I wear makeup whenever I want. Sometimes I don’t want to, even if I’m meeting with a client or showing up at a company event. Sometimes I want to try something different on myself, so I throw on some makeup.

      It’s true that working as a woman in a corporate environment generally requires a great deal more attention to physical appearances (as simply belonging to society generally does, too), but I also know that being unapologetic about not wearing makeup in the corporate environment has shown my peers and bosses (males, in particular), that I’m not there because I’m sexual, but because I’m fucking good at what I do.

      Plus, dividing groups of feminists up into those who are doing it right and those who are doing it wrong, I’ve found, simply divides the power of the movement. I say, let’s empower rather than divide. All other discourse should take place in an intellectual rather than accusatory zone.

      This has been the problem with our movement in the past three decades. We’ve spent too much time telling women what to do and not do, when what we should be doing is empowering women to own whatever they do and to choose whatever they do, come hell or high water. If a woman wants to wear makeup because she chooses to wear makeup, that’s great! If a woman wants to spend her life in the kitchen making food for her husband and she chooses to do so, that’s great! An empowered woman feels like the world is her oyster, an unempowered woman feels like she has no choice at all in the matter.

      In short, let’s not divide to conquer. Let’s cooperate to conquer.

    2. As the author of this piece, I’m unaware of how the perceived failure of women wearing makeup is in any way related to this piece. The assumption that women wear makeup as a way to “fit” in is one that may have some evidence, ( though I see none presented other then your opinion)  exists as a very narrow bar for judgement. While I agree that depictions of men wearing makeup or any depictions of men accepting femininity are ridiculed,I think that is more a problem of the demonization of femininity, a concept explored really well by author Julia Serano, who we just interviewed.

      Examining the societal-wide disdain for trans women also brings to light an important yet often overlooked aspect of traditional sexism: that it targets people not only for their femaleness, but also for their expressions of femininity. Today, while it is generally considered to be offensive or prejudice to openly discriminate against someone for being female, discriminating against someone’s femininity is still considered to be fair game. The idea that masculinity is strong, tough, and natural while femininity is weak, vulnerable, and artificial continues to proliferate even among people who believe that women and men are equals. And in a world where femininity is so regularly dismissed, perhaps no form of gendered expression is considered to be more artificial and more suspect than male and transgender expressions of femininity

      The blanket statement of saying that women who wear makeup promote the status quo is ultimately stigmatizing and frankly, part of unsuccessful discussions that pit those involved in feminism against each other, when we can be concentrating on issues that are inclusive and accessible to ALL. But isnt it funny how patriarchy can slip in and make us fight amongst ourselves?

      Also, this is type of policing is problematic, and really, by focusing on whether or not someone should “put on a corporate face”  (another position I would take caution in  b/c of the inherent privileges that exists in prescribing what one should and shouldn’t do to “get by”), you end up invalidating the idea that different choices exists. Feminism is not a monolith and you are more then welcome to disagree with that, but you cant disown or make statements claiming that “oppression will be over when no one wears makeup”. I think it is a healthy position to ask why one wears makeup and who one wears it for, but ultimately, that is not your question to be asking of other people. And to be really frank, I know women who have piled  makeup on their face Tammy Faye Baker style that have more feminist principles in their mascara wand then an entire andrea dworkin book.

      And personally speaking, if you believe that the feminist movement will have “succeeded” when women don’t need makeup anymore, I would assume to think you are missing out on a much larger picture.

      You are welcome to disagree.

      1. Thank you all for your thoughtful replies. I was responding mainly to the third item, advertising’s exploitation of women’s images. I’m certainly not in any position to dictate life choices to anyone, and I appreciate the passion behind the reactions to my original post. God knows, I also hate name droppers, but my reference to Levi-Strauss was not meant to clinch an argument, just to propose an anthropological viewpoint on the issue.

        I’ll quote another sage: “I don’t know who discovered water, but it wasn’t a fish” (Marshall McLuhan, so sue me!) I would suggest that if you can’t see the way makeup demeans women, objectifies them in men’s eyes and creates an unlevel playing field in our culture, perhaps you’re using too much mascara. I can appreciate that there is a “fun” element to wearing makeup. I like Halloween as much as anyone. One day a year. But if you can’t see how your self image is warped by advertising’s images, makeup and all, you are missing the point. It’s as if slaves in the 19th century defended their chains as giving them security and a sense of belonging!

        It doesn’t divide the feminist movement to address issues honestly and completely. On the contrary, it strenghthens it. Go reread Simone de Beauvoir or Betty Friedan and then we can talk.


              You said: “But if you can’t see how your self image is warped by advertising’s images, makeup and all, you are miss­ing the point.” My dear, if you can’t see how assuming that you know each individual woman’s self-image and the way she interacts with her culture, you’re missing the point. You are doing to women what you object to men doing to them. You are painting them all with the same, inferior brush: the inferior brush that we don’t “get” what it’s like to be women, that we don’t “get” feminism because we disagree with you.

              1. “It doesn’t divide the feminist movement to address issues honestly and completely.On the contrary, it strenghthens it. “

                Absolutely. However how about issues that actually matter, like say the pornographying of advertising as opposed to the psychological consequence. In a sense, you are blaming the victim for being influenced by a mega-force that deeply embeds itself in our conscious. By saying so, why dont we just stretch to make other assumptions about self-image. All women who have eating disorders should just get over it, all women who cut themselves just need to stop, and all women who do anything other then what you believe are doing something wrong.

                I would suggest that if you can’t see the way makeup demeans women, objectifies them in men’s eyes and creates an unlevel playing field in our culture, per­haps you’re using too much mascara.

                You know, I have heard language like this before – from a police officer who condoned a rapist.  If you casually rearrange the words of your sentence, he said something incredibly similar.

                ” I would suggest that if women didnt want to be demeaned, then perhaps they should stop dressing like sluts all the time”

                See how easy it is to make such broad and stigmatizing statements? By the way, that was the officer who when a serial rapist was going around and attacking women, he responded to an upset community with this statement. This callousness of language led to the movement, Slutwalk , and women have been marching around the US and the world, ever since.

                Go reread Simone de Beau voir or Betty Friedan and then we can talk.

                How awfully condescending. Historical fact: Betty Frieden started the  “lavender menace” queer panic, and for many years, refused to have queer women participate in “her” movement. “‘Homosexuality . . . is not, in my opinion, what the women’s movement is all about.'” While that soaking in, may I again remind you how awfully condescending it is and how awfully privileged it is to smuggly suggest that someone “re-read” a text so they can be on an intellectual level that you clearly are on. This, again, is another reason why feminism isolates – it considers books and lingo as bibles and not as thoughts that can be interpreted into every day living. Ever consider the fact that those who may benefit from feminist friendly climates may have no clue who Betty Frieden is? Ever think that it might not matter to know? That maybe feminism is about creating access and inclusiveness for all, as opposed to dropping feminist author names? All that proves to me is that you have either taken feminist theory 101 or your Amazon recommendations list needs to be expanded.

                It’s as if slaves in the 19th century defended their chains as giv­ing them security and a sense of belonging!

                To think that my wearing makeup is in any way shape or form related to the mass oppression, rape,  kidnapping and forced labor of slavery  is it not only inaccurate, but one of the larger problems of feminism, which is ignoring a history of racial oppression. As a white-abled bodied woman in the USA, to compare my personal preference to wearing eyeshadow to “accepted slavery” is not only inaccurate, but shameful and willfully ignorant to those whose history does include slavery, as well as those who are still in slavery or forced sex trade. Its also a disgusting comparison, much like those who feel completely comfortable comparing abortion to the holocaust. Its not accurate and frankly it trivializes the event itself for the repurposing of a straw man argument.

                But of all this, this trivial pitter patter back and forth, Im assuming you will not change your mind. And that is absolutely okay. You can believe that makeup oppresses women and until every last face is makeupless, only then will we all be liberated ( how wonderfully easy it that would make my life’s work). But heres the thing. You cant prescribe that to everyone. I can believe that unicorns are real. But I cannot start getting bent out of shape when everyone else doesn’t believe unicorns are real and then get mad when I demand that only when unicorns are “really seen” will oppression end. All it does is lets people give me the side eye. Its just not that simple. My hope to you? Just let it go. Let this stupid little conversation go and whatever it is you are doing, change it up a bit. See things from another perspective. See things outside of “I’m right, your wrong” , because thats how people end oppression- when they realize there are millions of experiences out there and they can only build on top of one another, but sometimes its best to just shut up and listen as opposed to thinking you have all the answers. If you dont fine, thats totally cool too – its not my decision and while I can suggest, I cannot demand.  Its clear to me you are a very smart person, but that you value your philosophy of living as better and more high priority above all others. While it might just get you into a few internet broo-hah hah’s now, there might be a day when its actually really problematic and you might genuinely hurt and marginalize someone when you try and tell them that in your opinion, their experience is wrong.And you cant tell someone else that their lived experience is wrong. Just a thought.

  2. The erasure of non-white, non-beautiful people in advertisement is addressed briefly in an essay I have my students read (not because I’m awesomely progressive, but because the book uses it to demonstrate close reading and margin notes), “Disability,” by Nancy Mairs.

    She says, “I once asked a local advertiser why he didn’t include disabled people in his spots. His response seemed direct enough: ‘We don’t want to give people the idea that our product is just for the handicapped.’ But tell me truly now: If you saw me pouring our puppy biscuits, would you think these kibbles were only for the puppies of the cripples? If you saw my blind niece ordering a Coke, would you switch to Pepsi lest you be struck sightless? No, I think the advertiser’s excuse masked a deeper and more anxious rationale: To depict disabled people in the ordinary activities of daily life is to admit that there is something ordinary about disability itself, that it may enter anybody’s life.”

    She continues, and her argument is that we want to pretend our bodies aren’t vulnerable to disability, which I think is a strong point, but I also think that the world advertising seeks to create is a world of beauty so narrowly defined that there isn’t room for beautiful people who are in any way outside the norm of thin, white, able, young, etc. You can’t be 9 out of 10 of the requirements and still be beautiful, in this model.

    But things get much worse if you “fail” to meet the standards in multiple ways–God forbid you be a disabled person of color.

    Anyway, I’m not connecting this very clearly to your original post any more (though it was my intention!) so I will end now.

    1. Yes! Thank you o much for bringing this up, as I did not address it directly. It is indeed a very narrow spectrum of what is considered a good “valued” image, which leaves out so many experiences. I think one of the best examples of turning that “failure” on its head ( because it is indeed, both a purposeful failure, as well as one out of ignorance or privilege) is the American Apparel ad campaigns recreated by Holly Norris which feature Jes Sachse ( the series is called American Able) . It shows Sachse in all the typical AA poses, including the famed photo of a model orgasming – and shock ! yes ! disabled people can too have orgasms. “Too often, the pervasive influence of imagery in mass media goes unexamined, consumed en masse by the public,” Norris writes. “However, this imagery has real, oppressive effects on people who are continuously ‘othered’ by society.” Its a wonderful piece, especially when representations of disabled people ( which are usually again, white ) are in quasi-vulnerable guilt ascribing ads that either aim to strike fear or sympathy( not empathy or personhood)

      Thanks for bringing this to the table- its a huge point I did not cover and maybe I will do a follow up series ( because I can tell you, the list does not end here).

  3. If you had told me back in the day that I would be working for an ad agency in the not-too-distant future, I might have laughed.

    Yup, that’s me (but with marketing). I’m actually finding it fascinating from a psychology and research POV.

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