Advertising has always strived to develop creative ways to sear its message through the minds of any who encounter them. Whether it’s in the form of depicting images that may be considered sexist, racist or demonstrates stereotypical, old-fashioned power hierarchies, it presents itself in ways intended to make its presence know. In order to stand out, these advertisements often seek to push the proverbial envelope and thus tend to tread into topics that are considered sensitive to some, disrespectful to others. In order to avoid negative publicity, companies and advertisers must tread lightly in order to successfully navigate sustaining a reputation hit.
Let’s begin with the form of advertising that is commonly seen and connected to and that is sexism’s role. Thus far, it has been ingrained in people’s minds that women are subject to the man’s gaze. Laura Mulvey delves into the “man’s gaze” as a gender power asymmetry in the 1975 essay, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Essay.” Certain companies take this principle and apply it to their form of advertising in order to gain attention and notoriety. Their ambition is to seek attention and strive to create what they deem is sufficient publicity. A perfect example that I can remember vividly is when Calvin Klein plastered a massive billboard on 42nd Street and Broadway overlooking Times Square. Of course, this is a well-known and prominent location in the biggest city in the United States that is subjected to millions whether it’s through pedestrian or vehicle traffic on a daily basis. The provocative poster featuring the Cuban beauty proved to be so distracting that while I was walking in Times Sq, men were either gazing at the poster or were walking into other pedestrians or food carts accidentally because they were so distracted looking up at the advertisement. I would say based on this observation, Calvin Klein successfully proved that provocatively featured billboards can go a long way in terms of drawing attention. Seeing the attention this garnered reminded me of Judith Butler in the text, “Performative Acts and Gender Constitutions” where she mentioned, “Gender is instituted through the stylization of the body and, hence, must be understood, as the mundane way in which bodily gestures, movements and enactments constitute the illusion of an abiding gendered self” (Butler, 392). Mendes’ bodily gestures further constituted the type of attention companies look to draw just to sell products to men who might feel inclined to buy for their girlfriend or wife and women who might feel compelled to get it in order to get positive attention albeit in a far more subtle way.
The narrative is still carefully starting to change in regards to women being on more equal footing with men in societal terms. However, every know and then there will remain viewpoints in regard to gender with power hierarchy. The mindset that women are under the control of men and are subjected to having to be controlled and do what men tell them is about as old fashioned as you can get especially in this liberally centric world. Sometimes you will see subtle references to that old fashioned viewpoint through advertising. Another Eva Mendes Calvin Klein poster located in SoHo depicts Mendes seductively laying on a man and essentially being the subject of his gaze and being under his control which ties into power hierarchy. The picture depicts the man being in control and Mendes doing as she is told which is to be seductive.
In Bell Hook’s Critical Interrogation: Talking race, Resting Racism , the topic of racism in mainstream is talked about. Hooks delves into the topic of “freshness” and describes fresh in the black culture as, “a word used to express esthetic evaluation of the unnamed forces behind a style, a concept, that adds something new to our way of seeing– enhancing the visual experience of the look, the gaze.” Which brings me to this advertisement of an ice cream bar company. The advertising agency located in Yekaterinburg Russia and named Voskhod depicts a black man in a suit holding up the peace sign in front of the Washington Capitol building. The man it can be safely assumed represents President Obama and him flashing the peace sign is a representation of being fresh and cool instead of the traditional wave of the hand. Further adding to the ads intrigue is the title at the top which says, “the Flavor of the Week, Black in White, Chocolate in Vanilla. This caption seemingly takes a swipe at the President’s ethnic background as he is the biracial son of a black father, white mother.
It’s ads such as the one’s talked about that seemingly attempt to convey subtle messages through the use of sexism, power hierarchy and covert racism in order to drive home a message. It’s amazing to see it still in use today. The only difference which is quite significant today is that people are more informed at being able to pick up on these possible motives and are now feel more inclined to speak out against it.
1. Visual Pleasure and Narrative Essay; Laura Mulvey, 1975
2. Performative Acts and Gender Constitutions, Judith Butler
3. Critical Interrogation: Talking Race, Resisting Racism; Bell Hooks