The marketing and advertising industries might be the al Qaeda of gender-based terrorism, meaning that advertising is the most widespread, most effective, most elusive, and hardest to fight of all the sources of terrorism. I’m going to try to maintain some dignity, but this post might get ugly; I hate the ad industry (and its sycophantic step-child, the entertainment media) like Pauly Shore hates that the 90s are over, and I’m pretty sure it’s going to show.
Long, long ago (at least 10 days), I defined terrorism as any action that makes use of fear to manipulate people’s behavior, and advertisers are more adept at doing so and getting away with it than just about anyone. Advertisers find ways to get us to spend our money on things we don’t need, don’t (and probably shouldn’t) want, and likely can’t afford by creating an atmosphere of never-ceasing fear and self-doubt in which we feel like incomplete human beings if we don’t own every item in the everlasting parade of useless bullshit they present to us. And almost no one calls attention to it.
Advertisers have gone from doing research on how to meet customers’ desires to creating and directing desires, all while giving us the illusion of choice. They manage this because they have found a way to overwhelm us with their messages; the collusion between advertisers and entertainment media has advanced to the point where it’s almost impossible to draw a line between the commercials and the content on any major network these days, so that we’ve found ourselves in a situation in which we’re being advertised to at almost every moment. There’s virtually no hope of resisting the advertising juggernaut because the totality of our cultural identity is created by advertisers and their entertainment industry lackeys. They now tell us who we are, who we want to be, and how to get there (at which point who we want to be will change). They’ve transitioned from selling us single products to selling us identities (e.g. If you wanna be urban, get yourself a VW, an iBook, some $200 jeans, and whatever Urban Outfitters is selling this week, and hurry up and get yourself those Radiohead and Vampire Weekend CDs).
Advertisers have somehow found a way to manipulate women into buying products from their clients despite the fact that they repeatedly tell us, in no uncertain terms, that they hate us. And that’s where the difference between advertising aimed at men and that aimed at women lies: advertisers take advantage of men as well as women, but most ads aimed at men don’t come with a dose of disrespect and dehumanization (of men). The message aimed at men is usually one laden with flattery, fantasy, and promises of ego boosts, which are chiefly gained at the expense of women. The message aimed at women is more likely something along the lines of, “If you buy this you’ll be less worthless than you are now, but you’ll still be pretty worthless.”
Let’s have a look at a few examples.
Durex sells XXL condoms. You know, because there’s a dude somewhere whose wiener just can’t fit into the regular condom, which can stretch to a diameter of about 10 inches, or the old Magnum XL condoms, which might stretch to 15. Riight. The secret to XL and XXL condoms is that any asshole can wear them, and hence they sell like hotcakes even though there is no such dude that needs them. So, here we have a useless product that no one needs, but that plenty of men probably feel like they have to have in order to feel like a part of the big wiener club.
And how do you know if you’re really a member (pun intended)? That’s easy. If you hurt the people you do it with, you can pat yourself on the back for being a “real man.” No, you shouldn’t consider not doing something to someone that hurts them. It’s your right as one of the few, the proud, the huge-enwienered to go around injuring your sex partners. Women can deal with a little physical pain to bolster your ego, because, fuck, that’s what women are here for. Or at least that’s what Durex seems to think.
This ad fucking terrified me when I first saw it, because it’s pretty clear these guys did some research and that their research told them that this ad would play well with men, and that it wouldn’t be necessary to tone it down in order to avoid scaring potential female customers. Despite the fact that it’s usually women who insist on condom use (women make up about a third of condom sales, and who knows how much more if one considers how many of the men buying condoms are doing so at their female partners’ request), Durex is basically telling all the women who see the ad, “Fuck you. You aren’t a person, you’re a body part for men to use. You can suck our collective dick, and then buy our product.” This ad is admittedly a pretty extreme example, but it’s far from unique, and it’s part of a huge woman-hating Durex campaign (fuck Durex, obviously, because they’re terrorists and they’ve clearly shown that they have no respect for half the world’s population’s humanity).
Advertisers know something most of us don’t: women have been exposed to so many images that tell them that they are their body parts (and nothing else) that it’s safe to put out an ad like this and expect women to let it pass. I mean, look at what they get away with when selling a product exclusively to women:
“Buy our boots. You’ll look hot even after you get raped, murdered, and shoved into a trunk.”
“What’s hotter than rape and murder?”
JESUS CHRIST! Apply the switcheroo here: imagine an ad featuring a man dressed up in his best Armani suit, beaten to death and left in an alley. There is no way an ad firm would make such an ad, because they know that men aren’t excited by seeing themselves dismembered, victimized, and murdered, and that men don’t see themselves through the same lens women do. There is no fucking way a dude would be attracted to images of brutalized men. It’s sick, but advertisers think they have some kind of insight into women’s minds, and maybe they do. Maybe most women have internalized the hatred of women that seems to dominate our popular culture to the point that they’ve lost their ability to be shocked by images such as these. Maybe most women can imagine themselves as a part of some kind of violent fantasy, can see themselves, as women have been trained by advertising to do, as if through the eyes of an onlooker, one who is attracted to images of women’s helplessness and victimization. Whatever it is, these advertisers are aware of and confident in their own influence. They’ve trained us, they think, to respond to their commands, even when those commands are couched in messages of pure misogyny. And they’re right a lot of the time.
How did we get to this disgusting place? Advertisers have always played upon people’s fears, but how did we get to a place where they can insult us, terrorize us, and still manipulate us into buying their products? Women are cornered by advertisers, trapped in an intractable position in which, even if they buy up everything they’re told to, they’ll still be used as decorations, made the butt of cruel jokes, and told that they don’t measure up to the impossible standards set up by the beauty industry. Ads create a low-level, but constant, state of terror in women’s minds, one that can only temporarily be partially alleviated through shopping but one that will never go away. It’s insidious, it’s difficult to describe or explain, it’s ubiquitous, and it’s overwhelming, but the influence of advertising is terroristic and needs to be confronted, because it may just be the number one factor limiting women’s potential. It dominates our conceptions of ourselves, it misdirects our energies and resources (financial, mental, and physical), and it prevents us from seeing our way to equality with men because it teaches us that we’re collections of body parts constantly in need of improvement rather than human beings.
The previous examples are a few of the most shocking I’ve seen recently, but their message is simply a purer distillation of the message in ads like these:
We’re supposed to see ourselves as if through the eyes of a male onlooker, we’re expected to be attracted to images of women being objectified, we’re supposed to aspire to a completely artificial and impossible beauty standard, and we’re expected to identify with this hateful and limiting conception of womanhood enough to want to buy the products associated with it? What a fucking insult. Seriously, fuck you.
I often find myself in conversations with women who don’t see what I’m so upset about, who tell me not to make such a big deal out of things, and it makes me nearly irrationally angry. I get all worked up about how evil and anti-woman the world of advertising is and it blows my mind that there is a woman on Earth that can’t see it. But then I remember that we aren’t supposed to see it. Advertisers are counting on the efficacy of their terroristic techniques. We’re supposed to be too busy worrying that we aren’t skinny, beautiful, hot, or “feminine” enough to notice that they’re selling us hatred of ourselves.
So how do we resist the advertising machine? It’s one of the world’s biggest industries; it creates the cultural context from which we have to fight it and, as such, it amounts to insurmountable brainwashing for the majority of the population. It feels hopeless, but there are some things that can be done. Obviously, we shouldn’t buy anything from companies that use images like these to sell their products, but that takes some real effort. I don’t even know that it’s possible to only buy products from companies that treat women like human beings, but we can choose the lesser of many evils when we make purchases. One of the most effective techniques I’ve seen of calling attention to the influence of advertising is vandalism (too bad Shepard Fairy turned out to be the sell-out of the century), and I practice it frequently by defacing misogynistic ads on bus stops, in subway stations, and on posters at construction sites. Those are just two ideas, and I’d be happy to hear more. It’s likely going to take a lot of time and effort, but the more people become aware of the influence of advertising on our images of ourselves, the more likely it will be to change.