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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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In the last several decades, there have been significant changes in the roles of the genders within society. Changes have especially occurred in relation to the role of women as they are no longer expected to take on the traditional roles of staying at home with children and are increasingly taking on managerial roles within employment (Buddhapriya, 1999). This has provoked much speculation as to whether depictions within the media, especially advertising, have kept up with societal changes. Men and women react to completely different incentives when observing and assessing messages within advertisements (Sheehan, 2003) as the genders differ in many ways. As a result, it is to be expected that the ways in which males and females are portrayed are very different. As a consequence, the dissimilar representations can lead to both deliberate and inadvertent consequences that are capable of either positively empowering a gender or creating and encouraging harmful, damaging stereotypes.

Organisations and advertisers are frequently condemned by a wide range of sources in relation to the manner in which women, in particular, are depicted. Critics claim that media organisations far too regularly communicate images of the female sex that perpetuate impractical, clichéd, and restrictive perceptions (Wood, 1994). As it is only since the early twentieth century that women have been publicised in positions other than the buyer of typical household items, the majority of criticism and studies regarding gender representations within the media are focused upon women.

 Laura Mulvey (1975) argues that humans live in a patriarchal society, a society that is dominated by and under the control of men as they possess most of the power.  Her theory ‘the male gaze' was originally applied in relation to the role of gender within cinema, however it has been established that her ideas and philosophies can also be applied to the advertising industry (Carilli & Campbell, 2005). The theory maintains that the audience of the female figures that are represented within the media are obliged to view women from the perspective of a heterosexual male. The female figure is viewed as an individual that retains meaning rather than one that produces meaning, as this is the task for the ‘active' male (Kern, 1996). The gaze encourages a manner of viewing that empowers men whilst simultaneously objectifying women. The theory is still applied to modern media content to the present day however the validity of the theory is often questioned due to the fact that Mulvey's notion does not take aspects other than gender, such as “race, class and sexual orientation” (Wright, 2008) into consideration.

Mulvey argues that a consequence of the gaze is the objectification of women. She claims that females are demoted to objects which are only present to be appreciated for their physical appearance (Tischner, 2013). The gaze is not returned by the female characters due to the assertion of male power over the objectified women. Within the narrative productions that Mulvey analysed, the idea that “to see is to desire” (Meyers, 1999) is exhibited and so unsurprisingly the ‘passive' and incompetent women often appear to be unaware of the gaze and are looking in a different direction. However, there are examples within the media that contradict this theory. For example, image 2, which features Rihanna on the Rolling Stone magazine cover from April 2011, opposes Mulvey's theory (1975) as she appears to be empowered and challenges the ‘voyeur' by returning the gaze and looking directly towards the viewer of the image.

Women within the media are constructed to be objects of scopophilia, Mulvey claims that media representations incite sexual pleasure through looking at women in their traditional exhibitionist role. This in an attempt to “communicate through a patriarchal structure” (Dutt, 2013). Mulvey (1975) also maintains that women are characterised by their “to-be-looked-at-ness” in cinema as they are the spectacle to be admired. Image 2, a Rolling Stone magazine cover featuring Rihanna, appears to conform to Mulvey's concept in relation to female exhibitionism and ‘to-be-looked-at-ness'. Rhianna can be seen to be wearing a cropped top revealing part of her stomach as well as extremely small ripped shorts that reveal parts of her buttocks. Her pose and body language appear to be inviting the viewer to look at her body as she is standing to a side, displaying her curved figure and arching her back to emphasise the size of her buttocks. However, it could be argued that Mulvey's theory of females being a victim of ‘to-be-looked-at-ness' within media representations is outdated to an extent. First of all, it could be assumed that Rihanna is choosing to sexually objectify herself by agreeing to pose in a seductive way that intentionally magnifies features of her body such as her buttocks. Furthermore, in contemporary representations, there are an increasing amount of male figures being portrayed as an “object of fetishistic scopophilia”, being fetishized by “both male and female and heterosexual and homosexual audiences” (Cheu, 2015). Although ‘to-be-looked-at-ness' is still present within the mass media, it is a problematic issue that needs to be addressed and looked at as a whole, rather than purely a form of female objectification.

Women are often displayed in ways that accentuate their status as “sexual beings” (Sturken & Cartwright, 2009). The sexual objectification of women in advertising is frequently achieved using the technique of taking close ups that fragment the female body into eroticised areas, such as the lips, legs and breasts (Fol, 2006). It is alleged that the fragmentation of women's bodies has two main outcomes. One outcome is that the woman's body is “depersonalized, objectified and reduced to its parts” (Carilli & Campbell, 2005), the face and head of the female is usually not present and so the individual becomes dehumanised. The second outcome is that the image cannot be interpreted from the female's perspective as the woman is not presented to be a “unified conscious living being” (Carilli & Campbell, 2005). As a result, the fragmentation of women's bodies could perhaps be held partly accountable for the continuation of misogyny in society. The depiction of a woman as a sexual object eradicates her rights to respect and takes away her right to be treated as an equal gender (Bouvard, 1996). As sociologists (Hatton & Trautner, 2011) state, “It is problematic when nearly all images of women depict them not simply as 'sexy women' but as passive objects for someone else's sexual pleasure".

An example of the fragmented body is clearly evident in image 1, an advertisement from 2006 for Tom Ford for Men fragrance. The image is cropped so that the main focus of the body is solely on the woman's breasts, of which the nipples are scarcely covered by her hands. With the exception of the female's mouth, the rest of her face is missing which emphasises the idea that females are not appreciated or respected for their intellect, but for their physical body (Davis, 1995). The fragrance, that is being advertised, is phallic and positioned in between the woman's breasts. A sexual act is clearly suggested as her skin also appears to be oily, creating the impression that she is sweating and her mouth, which is only just in sight, is wide open implying a sexual moan. The woman's red lipstick and red nail polish also stand out, producing associations of lust and desire.

The bodies of women that are so often focused upon and selected to be sexualised within the media all appear to be of a similar, slender figure (Volkwein-Caplan, 2014). Most women represented have a “large bust, a narrow waist, and proportional hips and thighs” (Smith, 2014). Although attaining this figure for the majority of women is unrealistic, females try to achieve these features due to the pressure that is placed upon them by the mass media to reach a specific level of physical beauty. Studies found that images within women's magazines particularly provoked body image concern by promoting the view that males expect and prefer women to be thin (Thomsen, 2002).  Women are under constant pressure to reach the 'ideal figure' that is consistently presented within the media due to the underrepresentation of other body types, and a “cultural taboo” (Sheehan, 2003) against larger physiques. As a result, such standards can lead to the development of eating disorders, harmful dieting, smoking and cosmetic surgery as well as the development of an obsession with appearance. All of these factors are arguably capable of compromising the capability and acceptance of women within society (Slaviero, 2006).

Image 1, the 2006 advertisement for Tom Ford for Men, supports this concept to an extent as although the female's full body is not revealed, it is clear that the female is of a slim build. For example, her collarbones are prominent as well as bones from the upper area of her ribcage which are also visible. Her breasts appear to be perfectly rounded and “surgically enlarged” (Smith, 2014), reinforcing the idea that natural women's bodies are regularly not up to the required standard that is set by the media.

Image 2, the Rolling Stone magazine cover featuring Rihanna from 2011, conforms to this concept to an extent as her waist is narrow and she appears to have hips and thighs that are generally ‘in proportion'. However, it could also be claimed that the image deviates from the theory to a degree as although she appears to be slim and in good physical shape, there is an absence of emphasis on the visible bones of the human body and so the significance of the ‘thin-ideal' is not exhibited (Vermeulen, 2005). There is also an unusual lack of focus placed upon the female's “large bust” as the image has been taken from a distance, rather than close up, and her chest is fully covered. Although, it could be debated that her body has still been sexualised, but the attention has just been relocated from her breasts towards her buttocks instead.

Although the beauty ideal within society changes over time, the notion of being thin and physically in shape has always been deemed to be a “key signifier of femininity” (Rumsey & Harcourt, 2012). As a result, the same ‘feminine' body type is repeatedly represented, and sometimes even digitally manipulated, by a large proportion of media organisations. Research has revealed that what was considered to be the thin and ideal body to attain in the 1960s is still present to this day, however the idea of what a slender body looks like is dramatically thinner. This indicates that society's views in relation to body standards are becoming even severer, decreasing the probability of many women achieving the media's idea of an ‘ideal body' even further and consequently increasing the likelihood of physical and mental health deterioration (Degges-White & Borzumato-Gainey, 2013).

The presence and placement of “suggestive captions” (Deverell, 2001) feature in a large proportion of representations of women with the aim to further associate and “reinforce sexual” content (Ross, 2012). The text placement below the woman's breasts in image 1, the advertisement for Tom Ford for Men, supports this concept by indicating that a female's body parts, such as the breasts, are objects “for men” to use for their pleasure. Studies have found a “constant use of erotically invested words alongside a female” (Rubchak, 2015) figure. It could be argued that, to an extent, this positively promotes a normalised observation of women as sexual beings however it could also strengthen the view of women being “sexual objects” (Carilli & Campbell, 2005). The caption in image 2 that accompanies Rihanna on the cover of the 2011 Rolling Stone magazine also supports the concept of ‘erotically invested words' being associated with representations of females. For example, in the caption there are words such as “sexting”, “bad boys” and “attraction”, this seduces viewers into wanting to find out more about her personal desires and sexual activity instead of aspects such as her intellect and professional career.

The objectification of a gender is often considered to be worse when the sexualised advertisement does not appear to have any relevance towards the product that it is trying to sell (Sheehan, 2003). Research has revealed that a number of stereotypical depictions of males and females are suitable for particular types of products, for example a portrayal of a mother is appropriate in association with a product that is to be utilised within a home environment (Ferguson, Kreshel, & Tinkham, 1990). This suggests that society as consumers do have a tolerance and acceptance that some stereotypical images may regularly appear for similar products on a regular basis. Nonetheless, it could be argued that image 1, the Tom Ford For Men fragrance advertisement, particularly objectifies women due to a lack of relevance. The advertisement is for a product that is “for men” and so the advert should display their target audience, a man, rather than a fragmented image of a naked woman.

On the other hand, one theory argues that sexual images that are presented in the marketing of products, like fragrances, can be vindicated due to a mating desire that is possessed by all humans (Sheehan, 2013). Humans aspire to look attractive with the intention of enticing a mate and sensual depictions have been found to hold significant power in relation to persuading a male to buy a product (Hoyer, MacInnis, & Pieters, 2010). Men are typically inclined to identify that a young woman that appears to be well presented, in good shape and beautiful will be a worthy partner (Desmond, 2012). As a result, many advertisers take advantage of this observation to acquire a man's attention by associating the purchase of a product with seducing a mate. Consequently, the sexual nature of the Tom Ford advertisement could be deemed relevant as it promotes the link between the product and the possibility of attaining a mate. The phallic bottle of the fragrance that is in between the female's breasts is clearly symbolising a sexual act, indicating that a man that buys and wears the fragrance will attract their mate and be given the same opportunity. For women, other factors are significant such as being a capable father and a man's financial position (Shackelford & Hansen, 2014). These factors are much harder to exhibit within an advertisement and so the use of sexual imagery that is targeted at women is not as prevalent as adverts for women demand intellectual, rather than physical, content (Painter-Morland & Werhane, 2008).

In conclusion, gender representations within the advertising industry both reflect the traditional concepts of gender roles while simultaneously shaping future roles for men and women within society. Research has confirmed that women are put under a lot of pressure in relation to their bodies as they are consistently sexualised and objectified within the mass media, whereas society's standards for men's physiques are much more variable (Grogan, 2007). Links have been established between the way that women are depicted in media sources and societal concerns such as mental health illnesses and eating disorders. It is important to acknowledge the strength of advertising in this respect as the power that advertisements possess could be used to portray more accurate and less harmful representations of the genders.

A general view is that advertising mistreats and creates strict expectations for women by sexually objectifying the body and consistently displaying unattainable beauty ideals. However, women are not being objectified in the media to the same extent that they have been in previous years and are increasingly being portrayed in empowering roles which were once considered to be ‘active' and masculine. Many theories, although still partly relevant, are becoming outdated. This is because other factors are being taken into consideration in modern society, such as sexuality and race. With a rise in more realistic gender representations, there is hope that harmful depictions such as the objectification of women will eventually be undermined while more varied and appropriate gender representations are produced.

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