What Am I Looking At?

By Rodrigo Valencia

Being the urban kid that I am, everyday as I walk down the streets of this metropolitan area I constantly come across all types of advertisement. Whether is a decal that completely covers a bus, or a huge billboard that can be seen from blocks away, their presence are attention-magnets. This being the case, corporations used them in their favor to distribute their messages and sell their products. Controversy is usually the way to go when someone is trying to get attention, therefore it is used as a strategy by these companies to gather a bigger audience. The amount of creativity included in these forms of controversial advertisement sometimes gets people to consume their products or boycott them. This type of creativity is manipulated by these companies that do whatever is necessary to make a profit off of what they are trying to sell. When money is the only motive that big businesses have, they usually create out of the ordinary advertisements where they take advantage of black humor[1] which commonly wins in terms of audience reception and numbers. They can use the idea of “black humor” as an excuse, but at the end of the day people of all races, cultures, and genders get affected by what’s portrayed in these images.

Times Square, the Mecca of advertising.

Times Square, the Mecca of advertising.

Among the topics usually displayed in controversial advertisement, sexism is perhaps the most widely used. Through erotic imagery in advertising, companies automatically engage people whose attention is immediately attracted when images of men and women in underwear are displayed. Most of the time the product being sold and the sexual images have no relation. They are only used for the sole purpose of attention which is always obtained. This year’s super bowl witnessed a commercial of the SodaStream company that was banned. Before I get into detail, watch it below:

This 32 second, 4 million dollar commercial was banned and not for the reason of objectification that’s portrayed. Ironically, it was banned because SodaStream’s competition, Coke and Pepsi, were mentioned. Furthermore, what this commercial is trying to prove is that sex sells. Having the renowned Scarlett Johansson in this video wasn’t enough to get the audience’s attention. She even recognizes that her presence is not enough when she states, “If only I could make this go viral,” that then leads her to strip off her robe to reveal the tight dress that she showcased as she was sensually dancing and drinking from a straw. The message that she is conveying is that the only way to make something go viral is by linking it back to sex, which she doesn’t deny. As John Berger mentioned in his book, Ways of Seeing, “Women watch themselves being looked at. This determines not only most relations between men and women but also the relation of women to themselves. The surveyor of woman in herself is male: the surveyed female. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”[2] Here, Berger explains the idea of women being objectified which is depicted all over the media. Since it is all a matter of vision, women are used in advertisement to get attention which results in sales.

Racism and power hierarchies go hand in hand with each other. It is all about the power and control enforced by a specific group and how all of this affects society’s ways of thinking. In media this is widely portrayed by many companies in their manufactured controversies. Again, controversy is involved since this is what gets the attention of the viewer. Even though it might be unintentional, black humor being portrayed in racist advertisements do offend people and further expand the racial issue in the world. For instance, last year Mountain Dew released a commercial that by many was considered “the most racist commercial in history.” (Watch below)


Some might find commercials like this one funny, but the truth is that no matter how absurd they might be they are still offensive. The fact that all of the criminals lined up are black and that the victim and officials in charge of the investigation are all white displays racism. Power hierarchies are also represented, since the individuals with a higher status and power are white. It is contributing to a stereotype that positions African Americans in a critical situation. As Bell Hooks said in her book, Black Looks: Race and Representation, “Stereotypes, however inaccurate, are one form of representation. Like fictions, they are created to serve as substitutions, standing in for what is real.”(171)[3] Her opinion about stereotypes is that they are an external form of beliefs, that can certainly influence the way people think about each other simply for their looks. This commercial directed by the extroverted rapper Tyler The Creator gained millions of views in a matter of days which at the end of the day meant success for the company.

At the end of the day, through these forms of publicity companies gain millions of dollars which is the main point. These commercials form part of the spectacle that make up popular culture. Even though highly controversial for their offensive content, they give people the opportunity to reflect and learn about the different stand points in society. They are just taking part of this consumerist society where companies do whatever is necessary for profit. Next time you see an ad, ask yourself “What am I looking at?” and after analyzing the image try to come to a conclusion about what was learned and how effective the company’s form of persuading was. You definitely get to see it all, but something in particular that should be taken out of these controversial ads is that you should never fall for their trap of purchasing something that’s not needed.

The only way to defy these types of commercials and get an audience that matches with them is to create something unusual. In my opinion boycotting wouldn’t help, instead doing something more creative that has never been seen before can get a bigger audience. An alternative to the typical “sexy” image created by the fantasy world of advertisement is to keep everything natural and adding a twist to it will allow the viewer to come to a realization that what’s real is better. For instance, American Apparel, known for its controversial sexist images has done something different with a 62-year-old model who is the new image for the lingerie line. Such companies tend to use young and fit models whose physical looks are always tried to be imitated by people, but this change allows the consumer to relate with the person modeling the product. People like it when they can relate with something, if images of average people modeling are displayed everyone would feel more comfortable.

62-year-old Jacky O'Shaughnessy, models for American Apparel. She breaks the typical model image which is controversial and an attention grabber.

62-year-old Jacky O’Shaughnessy, models for American Apparel. She breaks the typical model image which is controversial and a definite attention grabber.

In terms of race and hierarchy in advertisement, the same can be done by incorporating people of all races in different acts that the audience is not accustomed to seeing which is a good way to break stereotypes. We can take this year’s super bowl Cheerios commercial starring an interracial couple and their offspring as an example. Doing the opposite of what we have been used to seeing is controversial, therefore people would be appealed by it and without a doubt it would change the way social issues are depicted and how they go into effect.

Works Cited:

1. “Black Humor.” Dictionary.reference.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Mar. 2014.

2. Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: British Broadcasting, 1973. Print.

3. Hooks, Bell. “Representation of Whiteness in the Black Imagination.” Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston, MA: South End, 1992. 170. Print


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