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Five Pointed Questions: Dr. Lisa Wade & Dr. Gwen Sharp (Sociological Images)


Five Pointed Questions is a short interview format designed to introduced Change Marketing readers to some of the “stars” of the online social marketing scene who we meet in our blogging adventures.

For this installment, I sent five questions to Lisa Wade, Ph.D, and Gwen Sharp, Ph.D, authors and editors of Sociological Images. While not an ad industry blog, Sociological Images often examines campaigns in an academic context. This has led to quite a bit of back-and-forth linking between my blogs and theirs.

Dr. Lisa Wade is an Assistant Professor in the Sociology Department at Occidental College, Los Angeles. (Photo: OC site)

Dr. Gwen Sharp is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Nevada State College, in Henderson — just outside of Las Vegas. (Photo: Las Vegas Sun)

1. What role do you think advertising agencies play in social change?

Lisa: In a society in which the vast majority of products are non-essential, advertising has to convince consumers to buy things they don’t need. Advertisers largely do this by offering fantasies, suggesting that their products will bring buyers closer to pure happiness, true authenticity, real love, etc.

So advertising is the stuff of utopias. If utopias are erasing, exclusionary, or dehumanizing – for example, if they treat American Indians as if they no longer exist, suggest that fat people can’t be happy, or offer us the right to use or fetishize the black or the female body – then they are glamorizing social hierarchies. These powerful themes then colonize our minds, emotions, and sexualities. And cognitive bias is one root of interpersonal discrimination and institutional disadvantage. Representing and treating poor people with respect, for example, may help us see poor people as human, and therefore make it more likely that we support policies that allow poor people their dignity.

2. What is the most harmful stereotype you see in advertising today?

Lisa: There are some obvious ones, like the perpetuation of the idea that black men are hyper-masculine (all body, no brain, and potentially dangerous sexually and otherwise) and the constant portrayal of overweight women as aggressive, unlikeable, and sexually repulsive, but I think one of the most insidious stereotypes is the pseudo-self-deprecating “average guy.” Here I’m drawing from an article by Michael Messner and Jeffrey Montez de Oca, called “The Male Consumer as Loser. “ They examine beer advertising, but you see the character everywhere. He’s not particularly good-looking or well-built. He has a job, but probably not a great one. He hangs out with his buddies in less-than-glamorous places. And he’s very likeable despite all this.

On the face of it, this guy undermines idealized masculinity by being likeable despite being decidedly non-ideal. But if you pay attention to the women who surround him, they come in two types: sexy fantasy women and real women (their girlfriends, wives, and mothers). The “real women’ are usually portrayed as bitches, harpies, and nags, while the “sexy fantasy women,” upon interaction, often turn out to be just as bad. The viewers are meant to identify with the mediocre men, who revel in each others’ company, happy to be dudes free from the clutches of the women in their lives, even if they aren’t sleeping with supermodels. The mediocre man may be kind of a loser, indeed, but he can thank God he’s a man.

The “average guy” character, then, often reproduces the idea that men are superior to women, even while making fun of the hierarchy of men (the one in which men are ranked against each other). I like the latter part, but it’s unfortunate that making men feel better about themselves has to involve denigrating women.

3. Can an ad be “sexy” without being “sexist”?

Lisa: Of course. A sexist ad presents a woman as only a sex object, often identified with or standing in for the product itself. An object, like a product, can be bought, consumed, used up, disposed of, and replaced, all without any regard for its desires. This is what people mean when they say that women are sexually objectified in our culture.

Of course objectification isn’t bad in itself, but it is very bad when only one sex is objectified and that sex is rarely offered subjectivity. A non-sexist sexy ad would be one in which both partners are both objects and subjects. Yes, bodies are beautiful and nudity can and should be sexy, so it’s not a problem to look at someone’s body and appreciate it for what it is. But it is a problem to do so while ignoring or invalidating the object’s subjectivity. Unfortunately, much of what we see today in advertising involves offering an object that (promises to be) available to be used as the viewer pleases. The ideal woman, in these ads, is one that doesn’t speak, has no desires of her own — indeed, no personality — and will do whatever you say. She is just a body, and that is a problem. It’s sexist because it primarily happens just to women (and would be equally so if it happened primarily to men).

A post I did interrogating the truism “sex sells” expands on this point: http://thesocietypages.org/socimages/2009/03/02/sex-sells/

Gwen: I think the sad thing is that we see so few examples of ads that are sexy without being sexist. It’s actually somewhat odd, given that advertisers claim to want—and need—to come up with something original or striking that will draw viewers’ attention, and yet we have this major failure of imagination when it comes to representing sexuality, with advertisers drawing on the same sexist messages over and over. The originality seems to be only in exactly how you tell that sexist story of female objectification, but not in actually finding new ways to represent or use sexuality itself.

4. Who are the worst advertisers out there today, from your perspective?

Lisa: Well, I’m not prepared to do a comprehensive survey, but I will say that I’m beyond tired of everyone who is busy selling cleaning products (when was the last time you saw an ad that acknowledged that men clean?).

Gwen: Beer commercials. They especially rely on the “average guy” character Lisa mentioned, presenting men as an in-group whose bonding and fun are always threatened by female characters. They present adult men as, basically, overgrown adolescents who often have to choose between beer and women…and, of course, beer is the clear choice.

I’d also single out fashion advertisers who use non-White people in foreign locations as exotic props arranged around the (usually White) model in expensive clothing. I’ve seen a number of these in the last few years, both in fashion magazine photo spreads and in catalogs. The effect is to create a supposed contrast between the modernized West and the non-modern fashion shoot location (India is particularly popular), so the images tend to hide any evidence of modernity, instead showing animal-drawn carts, ancient architecture, and residents posed as simply one more interesting part of the scenery. I’ve seen a number of these where the non-White individuals’ faces are obscured, they are posed in ways that clearly put them in the background, or are shown serving the White model in some way (such as pedaling a bicycle taxi). On the other hand, the White model is presented as the subject, centered in the photograph or standing in a way that makes her taller than the non-Whites in the image. I think these images reinforce an image of other countries and their people as frozen in time and as sources of entertainment, adventure, or spiritual enlightenment for Whites.

5. Have you seen any examples of social campaigns you really liked?

Lisa: More than ads that upset stereotypes, I like ads that actually rely on an advertiser’s creativity instead of on tired tropes. I thought a European campaign to encourage people to aspire to careers in science was delightful and we covered an ad for Pyrex that just totally went outside the box (). We also featured a very well-liked vintage ad for Legos featuring a kid, who just happened to be a girl. It really put into stark relief how important gender is in children’s advertising today. And a couple of recent ads – for Geico and Skittles — lightheartedly pointed to the harm of stereotyping in ways that, I thought, carried a nice message.

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Thanks, Lisa and Gwen, for giving us ad people some big issues to think about. For more sociological goodness (and the occasional spirited debate) follow Sociological Images.

Previously in Five Pointed Questions: Marc van Gurp of osocio.org.