Advertising Imagery and Hegemonies of Power

Alejandro Hincapie

Contemporary advertising is often another manifestation of a patriarchal and white-supremacist society. The imagery employed to advertise, promote, or brand a product is rooted in these ideologies and contributes to the continued reinforcement of these hegemonies. A strongly patriarchal line of thought is evident in advertising imagery when products targeted towards female consumers are sold on notions of femininity that render all women inferior to males, as well as objectify and victimize woman through unattainable models of beauty and violent representations. White-supremacy is displayed and upheld in advertising when long-held stereotypes and typifications of people of color are kept alive and well through the images employed. Alternatives modes of advertising should steer clear of these ideologies and hegemonies, relying on positive affirmations of said oppressed and marginalized groups.

To understand how contemporary advertising is rooted in a patriarchal ideology, it is important to define what patriarchy itself entails. In “The Will to Change,” author and social activist Bell Hooks defines the term, stating: “patriarchy is a political social system that insists that males are inherently dominating, superior to everything and everyone deemed weak, especially females, and endowed with the right to dominate and rule over the weak and to maintain that dominance through various forms of psychological terrorism and violence” (Hooks, 18). As Hooks reiterates, patriarchy is immensely pervasive, operating in nearly all facets of life and originating and upheld by the most important and influential of social institutions. She quotes psychotherapist John Bradshaw’s definition of the term which emphasizes that “patriarchal rules still govern most of the world’s religious, school systems, and family systems” and how “most of us learned patriarchal attitudes in our family of origin… and were reinforced in schools and religious institutions  (Hooks, 23). Contemporary advertising is a prime manifestation of the pervasiveness of patriarchal thinking. The inferiority of all woman to males is evident in advertising when the imagery and accompanying message rest on, what professor of sociology Anthony Cortese in “Provocateur: Images of Woman and Minorities in Advertisment” describes as “very limited notions of what constitutes femininity”, namely “dependency, concern with superficial beauty, fixation on family and nurturance, fear of technology” (Cortese, 73).  These incorrect notions ultimately pressure woman into a line of thinking meant to dictate their actions in relations to the needs and desires of men. To be specific, Cortese argues that patriarchal ideology “tells woman they will not be desirable to, or loved by, men unless they are physically perfect” (Cortese, 54). This is manifested in advertising imagery that promotes standards of beauty that are unattainable for the vast majority of women and, in effect, encourages them to engage in harmful practices and behavior like “liposuction, anorexia, bulimia, binge eating, and cosmetic surgery” to reach those goals (Cortese, 56). What’s more, the physical dominance of men over woman is promoted in advertising through imagery with violent undertones. These undertones range in levels of overtness and can be characterized by images that depict the fear or being perused or rape or by representations of ‘stranger danger’ – imagery that uphold patriarchal myths of sexual violence against women where woman are the ones responsible for the violence acted upon them (Cortese, 73). The advertising campaigns of luxury fashion brands provide a succinct intersection of the different types of patriarchy-rooted female representation outlined above. In the ads below, an unattainable standard of beauty is presented as ideal in the thinness of the female models and perfecization of image in post-production. What’s more, there are undertones of suggested violence in the implied narratives of gang rape and ‘stranger danger’.

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 Similarly, the hegemony of white-supremacy is also manifested in contemporary advertising. The term white-supremacy refers to the social, cultural, and institutionalized oppression and marginalization of people of color on the part of white people and the power they hold (“Cultural Criticism”). For Bell Hooks, the term white-supremacy is more effective than the traditional discussion of “racism” because it implies a certain racial context framed by a long history. In “Cultural Criticism and Transformation,” Hooks explains the important and necessary weight of history that the term white-supremacy holds. She says, “’racism’ [unlike ‘white supremacy’] in and of itself did not really allow for a discourse of colonization and decolonization, the recognition of the internalized racism within people of color and it was always in a sense keeping things at the level at which whiteness and white people remained at the center of the discussion” (“Cultural Criticism”).  It is the long and complicated history of colonization, decolonization and accompanying white-centered hegemony that inform the contemporary manifestations of white supremacy, namely the modes of representations of people of color (“Cultural Criticism”). Stereotyping and typifcations are modes of representation directed at people of color and are, as Stuart Hall and others write in  “Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices”, a form of “maintenance of social and symbolic order.” (Hall, 256). By reducing a group of people to a few, simple, essential characteristics through stereotyping or characterizing them in a way that is simple and easily grasped through typificaiton, the development of that group of people out of the white supremacist system is highly hindered and obstructed (Hall, 258). These modes of representation place people of color into defined and easily recognizable boxes, preventing positive reflections or interpretations of them as individuals. This is exemplified in the hosts of recurring images used in advertising to sell products, promote and build a brand. Exemplified in the ad below, the shedding of a stereotype – the unkept    black man not worthy of presentation to the world – is actually use to appeal to the black men and gain favor between them and the product being sold.

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With the presence of both patriarchal and white supremacist ideology in contemporary advertising, it is important to acknowledge that both hegemonies work in tandem to keep non-white and non-male groups marginalized. Bell Hooks coined the term “white-supremacist, capitalist, patriarchy” to readily acknowledge the complex, intersectional dynamics of power that keep white males as the de facto dominating identity in society (“Cultural Criticism). The inclusion of “capitalist” suggests the large extent to which these dynamics play out in the economic sphere as evidenced by the use of both patriarchal- and white-supremacist-based adverting by pro-fit, corporate entities. A positive alternative to the advertising images that support this hegemony would be images that simultaneously and positively affirm women and people of color and explicitly challenge said power structures. The advertising image pictured below depicts a young non-white girl smiling as she declares through the text at hand that she will rise above the self-doubt imposed on her by female, non-white identity and come to head the highest political office.

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To conclude, products should be promoted and brands built through advertising imagery that allows positive affirmations and realizations of woman and people of color. This is necessary in order to help erode the long-established hegemonies that dictate so much of today’s world. Attainable and real standards of beauty for woman should be put forth that do not render them objectified entities whose value is only measured by their attractiveness to men. A culture of desensitization towards violence directed at women can be eroded if advertising imagery did not rely on violent undertones to create  interesting or ‘edgy’ narratives. What’s more, the effects of a long and complex of history of oppression and marginalization of people of color come to be eroded away if racial stereotypes and typifications were not used in advertising imagery in a way that continues to tie people of color to these representations in a negative manner.

 Works Cited

Cortese, Anthony Joseph Paul. “Chapter 3: Constructed Bodies, Deconstructing Ads: Sexism in Advertising.” Provocateur: Images of Women and Minorities in Advertising. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.

 Hall, Stuart. Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. London: Sage in Association with the Open University, 1997.

Hooks, Bell. “Cultural Criticism and Transformation.” Media Education Transcript(1997): n. pag. ]<https://www.mediaed.org/assets/products/402/transcript_402.pdf&gt;.

Hooks, Bell. “Understanding Patriarchy.” The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love. New York: Atria, 2004. 17-33.

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