Ever since the advertising industry made its boom with the historic peak in consumer consumption of the early 1950s, women have been overtly portrayed in unrealistic, humiliating, misogynistic, objectifying, demeaning, erotic, hyper-sexualized and outright disparaging ways. Cameras have stubbornly captured women and girls alike while sitting in intriguing poses, wearing succinct clothes, and flashing parts of their voluptuous bodies. They are semi-nude lolitas, femmes fatale, lascivious provocateurs, and everything in between.
Visual media has made solid steps towards shaping popular culture and, along with it, the way we see and perceive the world around us.
There’s no doubt that leveraging on sensationalism is a canny commercial move. By definition, content delivered by media needs to catch the public attention, piquing curiosity and luring people into buying a product, no matter of the consequences. Finding the men’s approval is key here, considering that the purchasing power has historically laid in their pockets – hence the male-oriented narratives dictating how women are and should be treated. But while these ads trigger reactions in subtle ways, ultimately increasing profits, the same images can instill a distortion of reality and prompt the masses to regard it as truth.
Countless studies suggest that the implicit sexual content of advertising shapes our behavior. There is indeed an intricate linkage between the exposure to sexually explicit images and men’s acceptance of rape myths and violence inflicted on women. It should come as no surprise that all this has contributed to the promotion of promiscuous and violent behaviors, perpetuating the principles of dominance where men prevail and women are relegated to a subaltern role.
A new wave of visual misogyny erupted when the digital bubble popped a couple of decades ago. This time, sexism in advertising assumes new sophisticated modes of expression. The essence of womanhood is now channeled into the image of a inhumanly perfect physical features – generous breast, thin waist, flawless skin and no sign of age or imperfection whatsoever. To comply with such impossible-to-reach standards, images undergo the trick of computer retouching: The body becomes an object, and the media are the presumptuous judges of what the woman is or should look like. So what is the impact of these imageries on women in the first place? Under constant scrutiny, the overwhelming majority of women end up focusing more on the pursuit of a one-dimensional idea of beauty rather than on personal development. Also, such new female archetype leaves no room for appreciation of women’s intellectual abilities and wills, and often leads many to face a dramatic drop in self-confidence.
Perhaps most strikingly, sexism in advertising hurts men as well. A 2013 study, conducted by researchers at the University of Manitoba, urges that the hyper-masculine beliefs which are reinforced by these advertisements act as strong agents of socialization for men, leading to destructive behaviors that can negatively affect their lives.
Things have gone one step further with the advent of social media. Misogynistic portrayals are now nearly ubiquitous and, what’s worse, their effect is primarily subconscious, which means casual watchers don’t even notice that a manipulation is underway. Over time, they become more vulnerable and lose the sense of discernment until they pretty much agree with the deviant portrayals. For this reason, it’s incredibly challenging for all of us to recognize the trap and avoid falling for a lie altogether.
Worthy of note is that most of the imagery disappears into the digital oblivion. Its message does, however, remain in our minds. This is why advertising is not trivial and its harm to society is not to be underestimated.
But, who exactly should be blamed for the unconscious biases now sweeping our online lives? The industries of fashion and luxury have notoriously come under fire for spreading misleading, bitter and largely abusive depictions of women. However, commercial advertising is not solely to blame. For the first edition of Italy’s fertility day, a poster featuring a young woman holding a sand timer with the catchline “Beauty has no age. But fertility does,” has made the headlines and raised eyebrows around the world. According to the slogan, womanhood is supposed to come down to the reproductive organs’s functionality. To some, the ad also echoes the patriarchal hysteria of the fascist heritage that measures a woman’s worth against her fertility and deems wives to be incumbent on producing progeny.
Moving forward, the phenomenon of “fem-vertising” comes in, marking the era of a new gendered imagery. Few years since, this celebration of what it really means to be a woman – with all the insecurities and vulnerabilities it entails – has become a big thing for an abundance of advertisements, and specifically for beauty brands. So is this triumph of feminism the manifesto of gender equality? Has the advertising industry undergone a renaissance, placing greater value on women’s inner beauty rather than on their external look? The answer is, very sadly, no. Such maneuver is finally getting across the right message that “women shouldn’t be judged by their cover”, and even so it follows an accurate logic meant to create emotional connection with millennials, whose tendency to value feelings over money offers marketers a fertile ground for their unscrupulous strategies. Feminism is then embraced, most of the times, for mere corporate interests, as a way to increase sells: Ads capitalize on the women’s need for self-determination, rather than tapping into the genuine desire to empower girls and promote truly positive models.
All told, when can we hope to achieve equality in media? Advertisements on TV, Internet etc., have long served sexism in its different forms and shades. It seems, then, that there’s still quite a long haul ahead. Until mainstream media persist in drawing a line between males and females, stretching the distance between the two, there won’t be equality in the true sense of the word. Several researchers have pointed out that we will reach equality when no angle or viewpoint is more relevant than the other, and the experience of being a woman is fully normalized in everyone’s eyes. In other words, the fact of being a woman should not be celebrated or thrown the spotlight upon.
In order to flip the script for good, it is imperative for mainstream media to generate more neutral advertisements where women and men share equal responsibilities undertake similar activities, and – simply put – are given the same degree of attention. No one is ruling over the other, or there is something one is better or stronger at, while the product just speaks for itself.