A few weeks ago, I was walking through the streets of downtown Dallas with a friend when we came across a stunning shop display. Plastered before us on the glass wall of a store, was a larger-than-life sized poster of a man and a woman. The man completely clothed in a smart tuxedo and the woman in her birthday suit—save a slim strip of cloth clinging to her hips. They were shown underwater, as if to portray the woman as prey, being attracted to bait; the man and his suit. The ad was for Suit Supply, a high-end men’s suit shop.
Completely disgusted, I wondered how places like Suit Supply felt completely comfortable blatantly using a woman and her sexuality as a shameless marketing tool. How can people view this as acceptable when, at the same time, they look back with contempt at the sexist and repressive ads of the mid-20th century? Do we honestly believe today’s ads are an improvement or has the media blinded and brainwashed us enough to actually believe that stripping a woman—or a man—down, is liberating? Are we in control of setting the standards or have we left that power to the industry?
Commercial media has played a large part in shaping American culture since the beginning of the 20th century. According to Jay Walker-Smith, president of the Yankelovich marketing firm, an average American can be exposed to as many as 5,000 ads per day. This strikingly high statistic affirms that no American is a stranger to the influence of the advertising industry. Ziad Abu-Saud further explains in a piece for the Huffington Post, writing “adverts…present us with values, ideals and social standards.” They aim to reflect the desires of society; manipulating those desires to make them easily profitable. Companies do not simply sell a product; they instead work to associate that product with an idea or message that viewers strive to achieve. For example, an advertisement for a new oven does not only bring you an easier way to cook, but also the idea that it will give you a happy family that enjoys each other’s company. However, beyond images like that of a happy family, commercial media also works to construct the roles that men and women play in society.
The way that a person is portrayed in an ad reflects what commercial society believes is his or her role and purpose in that culture. A purpose that is eventually seen as their defined and definite role by all of society. During the first half of the 20th century, predominantly, the only role a woman in an advert had was as a wife or a homemaker. Advertisements, for everything from dishwashers to typewriters, showcased women hoping for nothing more but to be the best housewives. Stuart Ewen, researcher on the role of advertising in the 20th century and author of Captains of Consciousness (1976), is paraphrased by William O’Barr, explaining that “advertising offered women labor saving devices like washing machines and at the same time instructed them in their proper domestic roles as mothers and homemakers.” These limiting roles became the only future women saw for themselves; the full extent of their aspirations. They set goals only to reach the glass ceiling society had placed far too close above them.
Many will argue that society has come a long way since the homogenizing ads of the 1920’s and 30’s. While we have certainly moved beyond the ever-present totalizing concept of the happy housewife, that alone doesn’t mean we’ve escaped the oppressive norms engrained in advertising. What is media telling us about the role of women in today’s society? What are the subtle messages they use to sell a product? Does a nude woman in an ad to sell men’s clothing truly mark progress?
Following the rebirth of feminism in the 1970’s, women were looking for empowerment and liberation. For the marketing industry, it wasn’t a societal revolution, but simply an opportunity to take a new angle. Instead of allowing women to set their own individual standards and ambitions, media stepped in, claiming to know exactly what a woman needs to have full liberation and freedom.
Commercial media then began to create the ideal woman, dressing her in revealing costumes, her beauty portrayed as her power and weapon. They sexualized women; once again limiting their values and abilities, this time focusing on sexual appeal and objectification. The marketing industry cleverly cloaked this ideology beneath the notion that this is what is needed in order for a woman to be empowered, in order to, very ironically, gain her freedom from being under the demanding rule of a man—as she might’ve been in the role of an obedient housewife in the 1920’s.
The realization and recognition of the potential for this narrative to influence roles outside of the media is vitally important. The rhetoric of media works to shift the range of socially acceptable norms by exposing and feeding society distorted ideologies of happiness, liberation, and empowerment. The manipulated and unattainable standards that have been driven through our society blinds us to the heights we would otherwise be able to reach, were we not shackled down by false notions of material and physical achievements.
As a whole, society is responsible for allowing the media to take the reins in shaping its culture. The industry does not work to improve society; it hands out instant and short-lived gratification. We expect this industry to give us what we need—turning to it to seek out our desires. We empower the media and hand over control by comparing ourselves and our lifestyles to the standards that the medium of advertising creates. The situation has not, and will not, get better until we choose to shift its power and influence over our society.
As the next generation, we are the cultivators of the future. We have the knowledge, resources, and, most importantly, the responsibility to overcome the repressing influence of commercial media and to break through the glass ceiling. We are more than the over sexualized and photo-shopped images that bombard us. We are more than a marketing tool, a pawn in the industry, a mind to be manipulated with.
Change will not come quickly. But, as technology grows and the world shrinks, we, as a society and community, have found a place for our voice. Harnessing the tools of social media, videos, and online campaigns, the potential for change is within our grasp. We are capable of restraining the influence of commercial media to only go as far as images on a screen and pictures in store windows; staying within the world of consumerism—far from our self-perceptions, societal standards, and individual ambitions.
Written for the 2015 October issue of AMP, the student editorial magazine at UT Dallas.