What Is Really Being Sold?

Advertisements play a large role in quietly shaping our society and our views of what is the norm, and what it expected of our culture. They supply the imagery and ideas of what masculinity and femininity “should” be as well as outlining gender and race roles.

Images in advertising use visuals and text that send subliminal messages to the viewer that go deeper than what they are selling. Viewers, especially women, look past the perfume being sold and see the thin model and wish to obtain the image of the model versus the perfume. The text and catch lines used in these ads also seem to send the message that a woman’s role is to be quiet and unheard, so women feel unable to speak up and voice their own opinions. Women were found to have scored higher on what they called “self-objectification”. This means women were more concerned with their outward attractiveness for example weight, size, and sex appeal versus their inward qualities such as health, fitness, and strength. This is seen to have negative effects such as “diminished mental performance, increased feelings of shame and anxiety, depression, sexual dysfunction, and the development of eating disorders” (Kilbourne 133). In the case of men, the muscular and athletic look is what is being shown as the ideal. At the same time, advertising and body image differs towards them. While many men in print are portrayed as Greek gods, advertisements such as food commercials show men diving into a bowl of chips, eating burritos shame free, and packing on a few extra pounds. That would never be acceptable for women in the advertising industry.

The portrayal of women in the media does not solely affect the views of women by women, but also has an impact on the opinions of men towards women. According to Kilbourne, a study was done on male college students who were shown the 1970s television show Charlie’s Angels. They were more critical when observing prospective female dates compared to the men who had not viewed the episode. Because of the unrealistic images in the media, men have unrealistic expectations.
The representations of females keeping quiet and males having freedom to be loud and speak their minds are used even with children’s advertisements. What is just as frightening is the sexual content in advertisement and media that is geared towards younger ages, “almost all of it portraying sexual behavior as consequence-free and much of it exploiting women’s bodies and glamorizing sexual violence (Kilbourne 147).” If you ever walk past a news stand, the majority of teenage magazines will have cover stories with information about sex and sexuality plastered across the covers.

Different races are shown in belittling manners, some so subtly that it may not be recognized with a quick glance or turn of the page. Kilbourne examines an ad that says “Just smiling the bothers away” with an African American model, which is stereotypical for that race. She also wears a bandana on her head, a modern portrayal of Aunt Jemima. Children of other races are often shown quietly playing the in the background, whether they be male or female (Kilbourne 142).
Many of the psychological effects triggered from advertisement may not be intentional. While much of it “is based on research and is intended to arouse anxiety and affect women’s’ self-esteem (Kilbourne 136)”, some is unconscious beliefs and views of the advertisers themselves, as they are also members of the culture. Popular culture is found in many, if not most of these advertisements. The most seen advertisements are for the newest styles, scents, accessories, and even food fads. Not to mention the celebrity models and spokespeople. Much of today’s popular culture stems from what these advertisements sell, whether is be obvious or subliminal. In a visual world it is hard to escape advertisements and keep them from transforming with the ever changing popular culture of the contemporary time. Advertisements will generally be influencing and influenced by popular culture. At the same time, particularly women’s magazines influence the change of the women’s role by glamorizing what the economy, advertisers, and government want of women at the time (Wolf 64).

An alternative to the psychologically altering images of models found in media would be to have the actual consumers of such products be the spokespersons and faces for them. Aerie, American Eagles lingerie brand, has taken a positive step by using “real” women, and claiming they do not airbrush the images. By taking it to next level and using the everyday consumers who are interested in the products to be the faces of the image would make a difference. Do the models wearing the newest spring collection actually wear those items when they leave the studio? Chances are they do not, so why is it that we are buying what they are advertising, and secretly trying to obtain their image? If the everyday consumers were used to advertise, people would be more interested in the product itself, and less interested in trying to acquire the physical image of the model. Consumers would have less mental stress of trying to become the person shown and hopefully be more comfortable in embracing who they are.


Sarah Lamont

Wolf, Naomi. The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used against Women. New York: W. Morrow, 1991.
Kilbourne, Jean. Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising. New York, NY: Free, 1999.


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