I have been wanting to vent on this for some time and a prompt from slendermeans has given me the excuse I needed. (It’s a really good blog and I suggest you all get over and check it out.) Gendered advertising has always kind of irked me, even when I didn’t really understand what those irksome feelings were all about. But once you are switched onto it, the amount of advertising that attempts to wrap us up into nice, warm little binary-gendered nuggets is extremely frustrating.
I call all your attentions to a K-Mart TV advertising campaign that was launched earlier this year in Australia. I’ve made things easy for you to understand the context of this post, simply by clicking here and here. You’re welcome. Now I’ll just grab a beer while you have a look.
The perceptive of you may have noticed that the commercials are a little dominated by women shoppers. And by “a little”, I mean “fucking totally”. These two ads are completely representative of the whole campaign, where 95% of those depicted as patrons of K-Mart are women. As you can see from the second video, this is even true when the products being marketed are intended for use by men. I mean, they’re men’s t-shirts! We can buy our own fucking t-shirts, thank-you very much, and we don’t need to be fed the bullshit that it’s up to the women in our lives to dress us up in our big-boy pants. I find the ads stupid and offensive both as a man, and as someone who supports feminism and gender equality.
Some may say that I’m overreacting because they’re just ads, and they’d be right. They are just ads. Piddly, stupid, inane morsels of bullshit that somebody has presumably been paid a squillion to come up with and produce. But despite all that, advertising works. We can look to the evidence to support this argument, or we can just trust common sense that if the industry didn’t affect consumer behaviour, then it is highly unlikely that $497 billion would have been spent on it in 2011.
So, we can understand and accept that advertising has impacts on spending, but this says nothing for any perceived affects it may have on our non-consumerist behaviour. Just because an ad makes me want to buy something, doesn’t mean that any other themes or ideas have rubbed off as well. While some debate abounds, with not much entirely concrete evidence available to support either side, I will make the argument that advertising – like any form of media – can help shape who we are and how we perceive the world around us. This is primarily for two reasons: television, including advertising, is one of the primary sources of our socialisation; and, our understanding of gender roles is largely influenced by our social environments.
In other words, our understanding about what a “man” and a “woman” is, is predominantly determined by the images and messages we receive from the world around us, and a lot of the time, these messages come from the idiot box. Gender as a social construction can often be a difficult concept to grasp, but it is one we have to deal with in order to continue with this discussion. To put it simply, no woman is born with an innate penchant for housework or pink things, nor do they have an intrinsic desire to make themselves look like Kim Kardashian or watch Dirty Dancing again and again and again. This isn’t to say that women don’t do these things – because they certainly do – but Baby wasn’t put in the corner because of the female Swayze-gene, she’s there because we have a socially constructed understanding of what it means to be a “woman”, which can then be manipulated and exploited to serve ends. It is the same story with men.
In the case of the K-Mart advertisements in question, women are depicted as adopting their natural role as material provider for their families – significantly, none of the products highlighted could be described as being solely for female use, as opposed to “men’s t-shirts” and “baby essentials”. And don’t they just look happier than pigs in shit about the whole experience…
There might be an argument that advertising merely responds to the existing consumers of its product. This is what is known as the “mirror” argument, which states that advertising reflects the beliefs, behaviours and mores that are already existent in society. While I think this is true to a certain degree, economically, it makes fuck-all sense.
Imagine you are the manufacturer of the Whizz-Bang Super-Dooper, a non gender-specific product with which you have managed to corner most of the market for men aged 20 to 30. Now, you always dreamed that the Whizz-Bang Super-Dooper would be something that everyone could own, so what do you do? You could rest on your laurels and begin to market your product predominantly to those that are already buying it. Or, you could target those that have yet to discover how freaking awesome the Whizz-Bang Super-Dooper actually is. I think even Hodor could understand that the better economic choice is the latter. You could still include men aged 20 to 30 in your advertising (you don’t want to alienate them), but you need to show others the product is for them too.
K-Mart, not unlike the Whizz-Bang Super-Dooper, is a product that is for everyone. Except this is not what the ads are telling us. Not only are they reinforcing a gender stereotype that women enjoy shopping (especially when there’s bargains to be had) and are the material providers for others, but they are also making a statement that K-Mart is not a place where men should be. In all of the 11 commercials from this campaign, I count a grand whopping total of seven men. Most of these are mere blurs in the background and are never the primary focus, their involvement in the shopping experience largely perfunctory and peripheral. I am receiving the message that K-Mart is a “woman’s place”, and that by stepping through its shoplifting-detecting gateway, I am assuming the role of the “woman”.
Tellingly, when the ads show a K-Mart staff member, this is most often a man, a casting choice that is consistent with much advertising where men are more often depicted in an occupational setting, or as the authority on a product.The advertising binary breakdown thus looks like this: Men own most of the jobs and can tell you what’s what. Women shop.
Perhaps the advertisers are just plain stupid. I wouldn’t be surprised. I have very, very little love for advertisers and marketers, slightly more than I have for tooth decay, and a little less than I have for those rogue nose hairs that interminably tickle the inside of my schnoz. But beyond my own bias, it’s the hit-and-miss nature of advertising that suggests to me that those steering the ship don’t really have any idea what they’re doing. Never in all my days will I forget when in 2008 I saw this wine ad displayed prominently in Bourke St, Melbourne. I mean, are you fucking kidding me? People got paid to vomit this idea up, then others got paid to produce it, and finally, supposedly successful people approved it. The anachronism inherent in the message relates to me that those who made it have absolutely no understanding of the world around them. Did they really think that using a Benny Hill-esque witticism to imply the promiscuity of this former Miss Australia was a good way to hock wine?
Similarly, lines of maternity wear (which were recently brought to my attention thanks to Saffron Howden over at Daily Life), look as though they are being marketed to young, just-post-pubescent women, a strategy that completely defies all notions of reason, intelligence and sound judgement. Either I am missing some really important aspect of consumer psychology and economic theory, or these marketers are fucking morons.
I think I’ll run with the latter.
And perhaps that’s the whole point: although advertising has the ability to influence what we do and how we think, not to mention its role in reinforcing gender stereotypes, it is an industry populated by sycophantic idiots. Idiots who possess a drive to make money by producing idiotic media items, designed to get other idiots to buy idiotic products. The really bad thing in this sorry state of affairs, is that advertising is not going away anytime soon, no matter how many blog posts are written about it. Our only hope is to vote with our wallets, spending our hard-earneds at places that reflect an understanding of who we are and how we want to be. I want to support a company that respects me as a unique individual, not as some stereotype who loves building stuff and is averse to clothes shopping. I don’t want my future daughter/s to learn from advertising an idea of themselves that is narrow, conservative, and downright fucking boring.
And if all else fails, a can of black spray paint couldn’t hurt.
And that’s what I think about that. Thanks for reading.