Selling ‘perfect’ · advertising and body imaging

The introduction of more body types into advertisements, along with the desexualisation of men and women’s bodies, will allow for a greater representation of reality.

It was reported in February this year that the Ugandan minister of tourism, Godfrey Kiwanda, had made comments on the ‘naturally endowed, nice-looking women’ of his country. These women, Kiwanda proposed, might be mobilised as products to attract visitors to Uganda, a means to beguile tourists. His suggestion may have sparked fierce criticism on social media, but can we really be surprised by his readiness to objectify the human body for profit?

Advertisement is all about selling the ideal. Marketers want consumers to feel that their product will be practical or enjoyable; that a product will improve someone’s life in one way or another.

This is where advertising models come in. We are supposed to relate to the beaming, delighted people we see in adverts. We want to become them, and we can see that the happiness of an advert’s model seems to rest on the product they are using. We, too, can be happy if we go out and spend our money.

Not only happy, but beautiful; ‘ideal’.

We see time and time again that the advertisement industry is guilty of overrepresenting thin, clear-skinned, shaven, women and tall, muscular, hyper-masculine men when selling products. In this way, the thin woman and the muscular man are constructed as inhabiting the ideal body that we might achieve through consumption. This had led to the construction of near-impossible standards of beauty. Most women models weigh 23% less than the average woman. Not surprisingly, a 1994 study suggested there is a direct link between a young woman’s exposure to media and the possibility she will develop eating disorder symptoms. Meanwhile, there is a tendency for advertisements to overrepresent the masculine ‘Adonis’ man’s figure, which is only increasing. It is probably no coincidence that an American study of 5527 adolescent boys concluded in 2014 that nearly 18% of respondents were concerned by their body appearance.

If the advertising industry can create an ‘ideal’ body, it can sell products. A 1985 letter from Glamour magazine to would-be subscribers summarises it perfectly. ‘I honestly believe,’ the letter notes, ‘that I can help you change almost anything about yourself that you want to’. Glamour magazine itself was (and is) full of advertisements that offered readers the potential to reconstruct themselves. The ideal self was just a matter of dollars away.

Or, as the recent case of the Ugandan tourist board demonstrates, spending money on products or travel might just bring us closer to those that are deemed attractive and ‘perfect’. Here, consumption is a means by which we can enter a world of beautiful, happy people, regardless of our background.

There are, therefore, several ways that bodies are idealised and marketized in advertisement. In a world controlled by consumerism, the advertising industry is at the forefront of constructing and fostering standards for body image. The bodies of men and women are sites for selling that have been objectified so much so that, at times, body image and ‘buying’ perfection seem more important than appreciating individualism and independent thought. This glorification of bodies has long been the case in advertisement, a consequence of the advent of mass-production and mass-selling which has only intensified since the birth of capitalism and industrialisation.

For instance, the Historian Mark Dawson has studied newspaper adverts in England between 1651-1750, showing how the idealisation of skin was used to delineate someone’s ability to work. ‘Fresh’ coloured skin was associated with good health, while being pale might suggest someone was unwell. As such, the word ‘pale’ came to be associated with negative words such as ‘sickly’ and ‘tallow.’ Men, looking for apprenticeships, often advertised themselves in newspapers with the assertion that they had a good, ‘clear complexion’.

This was an early example of how particular bodies might be associated with perfection when someone is trying to sell something. In essence, the apprentices ‘sold’ their labour, using descriptions of their body to reveal their strength and values. At the same time, paleness came to be seen as unattractive, suggesting someone’s labour was worth less.

Bodies have also been eroticised in advertising for decades before Kiwanda’s comment. The intention here is to attract the attention of consumers, encouraging them to make a connection between a product and gratification – sexual or otherwise. Barbara Mittler, of the University of Heidelberg, has written about the ways in which magazine adverts of the early twentieth-century posed women in racy positions, pioneering the sexualised ads of today. She writes that adverts in China, for instance, exposed women’s ‘feet, their legs, their armpits, their backs and more, bending their knees slightly or lying down.’ Men’s bodies are eroticised and objectified to an equal extent. Within the last decade, the term ‘hunkvertising’ has entered popular usage to refer to the way that muscular, shirtless men are used to sell products. Little wonder, then, that the objectification of the male physique has rightfully come under growing fire in journalism and opinion writing, but that has not been enough to decelerate this advertising trend.

There’s much more to it than gender. Fewer than one in ten UK adverts feature people from BAME groups as the lead figure. A 2015 study of the twenty highest spending advertisers in England and Wales found that black people appeared in 5.65% of ads. Mixed raced people and Asian people appeared in 3.86% and 2.71% of advertisements respectively. The majority of disabled people would also like to see more representation of people with physical disabilities in advertisements. In America, recent research by J. Walter Thompson New York and the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media has shown that women tend to be in their 20s when portrayed in ads, compared to men, who typically appear to be in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. There are plenty more groups of people that are underrepresented in advertising, which often has the result of marginalising consumers, causing people to consider themselves as unable to achieve the ‘ideal.’

It is encouraging to see the ever-flourishing tide of articles written about self-love and the rejection of marketized body images. However, I’m down-heartened by the capitalisation of self-love. I have little interest in branded clothing that features slogans like ‘love yourself’ when the brand itself continues to exclude models based on their particular body type, weight, skin colour, gender-identity, physical ability, or anything else that gives us our individual beauty.

When I say that I love movements that reclaim individual body love, I mean I love movements that are simultaneously highlighting the dangers or hypocrisies of consumerism and capitalist body imaging.

I’m not trying to suggest that we suddenly stop consuming in protest. Nor am I here to promote a left-wing agenda (well, that’s questionable – but not in this particular article). Instead, I mean to argue that idealised standards of body image will exist so long as the advertising industry objectifies, glorifies, and eroticises certain bodies over other. Movements for self-love are brilliant but we must contextualise them in this way.

No body is ugly, and what is considered ‘perfect’ now should not be wholly replaced. But the introduction of more body types into advertisements, along with the desexualisation of men and women’s bodies, will allow for a greater representation of reality.

Journals not already hyperlinked:

Mark S. Dawson, ‘First Impressions: Newspaper Advertisements and Early Modern English Body Imaging, 1651-1750’, in Journal of British Studies, Vol. 50, No. 2 (April 2011)

Barbara Mittler, ‘Gendered Advertising in China: What History Do Images Tell?’ in European Journal of East Asian Studies, Vol. 6, Issue 1 (2007).

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