In this post, I want to try and explain clearly and analyse a common argument which is rarely discussed specifically, though it is very frequently used in anti-oppression discourse. It is the argument which takes us from ‘women in advertising are only shown in certain stereotypical roles’ (an empirical fact which can be checked by observation) to ‘this is an issue about which feminists should take action’. A similiar argument can be used to take us from ‘there are few or no people of colour in science fiction and fantasy novels’ to ‘this should change’.
For the time being, I want to set aside the issues raised by the initial empirical observations (accepting, for the time being, that there are in fact some empirical observations which are worrying), and the issues raised by the conclusions (in particular, the issue of what action should be taken if these arguments are right is an issue too big for this post). Instead, I want to focus on the step or steps which take us from the empirical observation to the conclusion. This is intended to reply to a possible counter-argument which moves from the same empirical observation to an alternative conclusion, i.e. from ‘women in advertising are only shown in certain stereotypical roles’ to ‘and that’s fine’. Such an argument might run as follows, expressed briefly:
Premise 1: Women in advertising (as it is produced in Western English speaking countries) are only shown in certain stereotypical roles (the precise roles chosen for them vary along race, class, and other lines).
Premise 2: Actual women fulfil many other roles in life.
Premise 3: Women seeing adverts know that they are not realistic. Therefore,
Conclusion: Women are not harmed by their stereotypical portrayal in advertising.
I hope that this argument, which I shall call the no-harm argument, seems strong. It is not intended to be a strawman, though I do intend to disagree with it. On the contrary, it has a certain appeal: it accepts the empirical facts about advertising and actual women, and it grants that women are strong enough of mind to resist messages from advertising, which is also consistent with the experiences of at least some women.
However, I think that it does not reflect two aspects of advertising as it is currently practised in Western English speaking nations. Firstly, the no-harm argument ignores the way in which advertising is constant and repetative. I wrote in a piece of private journalling recently about the pain I feel when people, who have accepted that television advertising and programming carries harmful messages, suggest that merely not watching television will prevent the harm. In the UK today, it is impossible to walk down the road or use public transport without being exposed to advertising. Furthermore, a single advert does not truly stand alone. The stereotypes found in one (the woman who cannot think about anything except food) are found in another (the women who only cares about her appearance) and another (the girl-child who only wants to play with a toy cooker) and another (the woman who is desperate to get married) and another… One specific advert is not the problem. The pattern is the problem, because it creates an artificial normality – the world of what we expect to see in adverts – which is, for one thing, not diverse enough to reflect reality.
Secondly, adverts are not only seen by self-aware confident message-rejecting feminist women (we just happen to be ones who talk about them most!). They are also seen by children of all genders, men, unconfident women, and women who know that however hard they try, they will never live up to the beauty standard held by the world-of-advertising. (I think that’s almost all women, but some are born closer to the white-slender-symmetrical-straight-etc. standard than others.)
A new set of premises, then, might look like this:
Premise 1: Women in advertising are shown exclusively and repetatively in a small selection of stereotypical roles.
Premise 2: Actual women fulfil many other roles in life.
Premise 3: The repetation of advertising images creates an artificial ‘normality’ which is not representative of the real world.
Premise 4: All people who are exposed to advertising may be inclined to believe that some or all aspects of the artificial normality of premise 3 are better than the actual world and should be emulated as far as possible.
From these premises, it seems much easier to draw the conclusion that all people exposed to advertising are at risk of having their opinions affected by it. Premise 3 seems to me to follow fairly obviously from 1 and 2 (repetation creates expectation – if you doubt this, trying singing ‘Poor Old Micheal Finnegan’ with some children of your choice – and expectation implies normality: we expect things to be normal, therefore what we are trained to expect is what is being normalised), but perhaps 4 requires some more support. Can’t everyone be like the strong women of the no-harm argument and simply reject the normalising messages of advertising?
No. And I have empirical evidence for this. Think about it from the point of view of the advertising company for a moment. The aim of the company is to persuade you to act in a certain way (usually, to buy a product, but adverts asking for money for charity, for you to do your taxes online, or to Change 4 Life, all function in the same way). In order to get you to act in this way, they have to create a belief that it is worth the resources (time, money, effort) required to do so. This takes the form of a proposition ‘undertake action X and your life will be better in way Y’. For example: ‘shop at this supermarket and you will have more money for other items’, ‘buy this make of car and driving will become easier and more fun’, or ‘buy our perfume and people of your desired gender will want to have sex with you’. I hope those examples make it clear that I am not concerned here with the truth values of the claims made by adverts, only with the idea that in order to persuade people to act in certain ways adverts must make claims that the requested action produces a result which is desireable to the target audience.
Why, then, are we liable to believe these messages? Partly it is repetation, and that we are surrounded by other people who also believe some or all of these messages (not just people we know: if you differ significantly from the standard, for example if you’re very overweight, strangers feel free to comment). Partly it is that human quirk, wishful thinking: it would be nice if we could solve our problems by buying a certain product, and so we entertain the idea that we could. And partly it is that the advertisers are good at their job, at making the untrue seem plausible. It’s quite likely that one supermarket is cheaper than another, so why shouldn’t it be true that one kind of make-up will make you more beautiful than another? The catch there is that beauty is more complex than price: as I see it, either beauty is not what the adverts say that it is, or it is what the adverts say, but it’s not worth having.
If we accept those premises, then, it seems reasonable to reach the conclusion that advertising as it exists in Western English speaking societies today is harmful to at least some people at least some of the time. If this is true, there is a need for action: what action should be taken is a debate for another day.