A five-minute video has been circulating on the Internet featuring Jean Kilbourne, and it talks briefly, but powerfully, about advertising's very negative effects on women and girls.
As a man, in advertising, I am writing this knowing that in the past I have created ads that are guilty of this objectification. As a man who consumes advertising, I can also say I have been affected by them in some way.
Bill Hicks once said that if he saw an ad featuring a completely naked woman holding a can of Coke, he'd be buying a can of Coke that day. And he's not alone. As it has been pointed out by many people, sex sells. And continues to sell. But the problem has gone beyond sex, to images of women that are flawless, anatomically impossible, and harmful on so many levels.
The "Ideal" Woman. Please.
It's fair to say that advertising, marketing and the fashion industry has created a new type of woman that does not exist in the real world. This woman has no wrinkles, blemishes or scars. She has impossibly long legs, a waist so small it would make a Barbie doll jealous, and breasts and buttocks that are pert, gravity-defying miracles.
It's a woman men are told to desire, and women are told they must look like. But the problem is, as we mentioned earlier, she doesn't exist.
This is advertising's main function. Create a need. Then, provide something to fill that need. In this case, men drink certain brands of beer because they associate them with those impossible women. And women (and girls) buy certain clothes, foods and make up products in a vain attempt to resemble them.
This is the epitome of futility. You cannot have a woman who exists only in a Photoshop file. You cannot become a woman whose legs were created with the latest software. And yet, this kind of advertising is pervasive because it appears to still work.
Why Does This Fictional Imagery Work?
We all know it's false. Perhaps we don't know to what extent, but we really don't see women (and men) in real life looking anywhere near as good as they do in advertisements. Indeed, even side-by-side comparisons of before and after make-overs are nothing compared to before and after Photoshop effects.
This is wrong.
Advertising is not supposed to lie. It is supposed to exaggerate a benefit, but how much exaggeration are we getting away with now? I say it's way too much.
Perfection is not something we should be pushing on the world like some drug. Flaws can be just as beautiful, and celebrated, as perfection. In fact, most men that I talk to do not care for the plastic Barbie doll look. They prefer larger women with freckles, or shorter women with even shorter hair and glasses. They want REAL women, and real women are sadly lacking in advertising.
So, What Can Be Done?
Money talks. Advertising is ruled by the mighty dollar, and at the end of the day that's how campaigns live or die.
But it is also impossible for a client to buy a sexist, perfectionist ad if the agency doesn't present one. So, the first step we can take is to think more about what really drives people.
At the end of the day, what do women want to see? Do they want to be bombarded with pictures of perfection? As a man, I don't buy underwear based on the studly body of the guy on the packaging. I am actually more interested in something quirky or unusual, and price is a major factor. Maybe it's time to treat women with a little more respect, and show them something beautiful on a body that is not 100% perfect. I think they can handle it.
Beer, I do no drink the brands that are always pushing semi-naked women. I prefer beers with soul and flavor, and those don't need Playboy bunnies to help them sell. I am not in the majority at this point though.
It's the same for everything on the shelves. Yes, it's easy to go to the images of perfection. But it's better, and more challenging, to advertise without using the images. We can do it. We really can. We just have to push ourselves.