Gender and advertising

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May 22, 2013 by Tamara Piety

I ran across this little gem the other day over at The Responsible Marketing Blog. It is called “Role Reversal: Perceptions of Men and Women in Advertising.”  It features a neat video from the students in the Women and Gender Studies program at the University of Saskatchewan. It is funny and thought-provoking.

But, like The Responsible Marketing Blog itself (what would “responsible” marketing be and is anyone in a position to do it?), ultimately falling back on an ineffective strategy for combating this phenomenon. The student producers of this video urge viewers not to be “consumed” by advertising and to be critical viewers.

Being critical viewers is probably good, but research suggests that it is not effective at canceling out the message (see, e.g., Joan Jacobs Brumberg, The Body Project). Besides, as they note, these ads help to shape broader social attitudes about gender and the appropriate roles of men and women and a few critical readers will have to contend with the attitudes of other people in the culture.

Adopting an attitude of critique may lead the viewer to reject the product (i.e. not be seduced by the ad) or to reject the implicit messages that the video’s creators suggest these ads convey; but they won’t prevent the viewer from being the victim of other people’s distorted views about the appropriate role for men and women, for example being a victim of sexual assault.

Of course, it is really difficult if not impossible to prove that these sorts of representations in ads are cause the social ills the authors describe – sexual assault, low self-esteem, depression, increased spending on plastic surgery, etc. But this it is an educated guess that at the very least such representations do nothing to combat these phenomena. If ads affect the whole society an individual cannot avoid the repercussions, perhaps sexual harassment at work or being passed over for a job because you are seen as less competent or “too hot.

So, as I argued in the Case Western Law Review with respect to the Dove “Onslaught” viral video some years back, critical awareness (“talk to your daughter”) is not just probably useless, it may be worse than that in critical awareness may give you a feeling of agency or immunity which is misplaced. It may make you feel like you have “solved” the problem when you really haven’t. In the Case Western piece i argued that this turning of the critique back onto the listener/consumer and suggesting that critical deconstruction of advertising = immunity to its effects is itself an important part of the strategy for arguing that we cannot do anything to combat imagery of violence against women or sexism in advertising because it tells us that if we have a problem with these images it is our problem, a problem with how we view it, not with the expression itself. Dis-aggregating the social response into its individual constituent parts defines it as an individual problem rather than a social problem. I think that is a mistake.

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