One of the most complex endeavors of consumer goods companies is to stay relevant amidst the rapidly changing preferences in popular culture. Businesses naturally depend on the influence of marketing and advertising to maintain both a strong consumer base and a positive company image. Unfortunately, sometimes an advertisement that aims to resonate with potential buyers is considered grossly controversial to other social groups. This type of controversy consistently manifests itself in the form of objectifying women.
While both men and women may fall victim to acts of unfair degradation in the media, women are most often the center of focus. A woman is usually presented to mirror the physical features of a product, which consequently strips her of meaningful human identity. In contrast, men are often portrayed through a more natural lens by performing specific actions that allow them to embody more realistic images. Unilever's Axe body wash advertisement exhibits a collection of ideas that parallel those of John Berger in “Ways of Seeing.” The ad objectifies the woman in the image by both sexually exploiting her body and presenting her features to mirror a physical product.
Berger formulates a theory of objectification based on historic and socially constructed ideas of masculinity and femininity. Generally, to be objectified means to be depersonalized at a level equivalent to that of a physical object, in which case an individual is turned into a commodity and his or her personal values are disregarded. The term also encompasses sexual objectification, that is, the act of treating a person equal to an object of sexual desire. Berger's definition of objectification identifies women in terms of the surveyed and the surveyor. In other words, women constantly check the way that they conduct themselves from the perspective of a man, and by doing so they position themselves as an object to be looked at. Berger concludes that “men act and women appear,” and as a result women become a set of appearances, or merely a “sight.” He also outlines objectification through nudity, stating that “To be nude is to be seen by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become nude.” Many magazines and images that depict nudity do so in a way that sexually objectifies in the form that Berger describes. Much of Berger's argument can be reasonably applied to the propensity for women to be objectified in modern society, though his theory is fundamentally generalized. It is important to take into consideration that certain groups may not fall under socially constructed behaviors and ways of thought. For example, Berger does not address the possible perspectives of models that appear to be objectified in photos and advertisements. One could argue that men and women choose modeling careers for reasons that are more meaningful than society's perception of models as objects, such as for art or politics. Despite his generalizations, there are clear applications of his theory in the Axe advertisement.
The formal elements in the image are indicative of a deeper message than simple product marketing. This ad is just one of many others in which Axe depicted highly sexualized women as prizes of men who use Axe products. Through a variety of visual effects, the creators cultivate a sexual appeal that is emphasized even more than the actual function of the product to the male audience. A naked man and woman are shown from the waist up, standing separately in the foreground of the image. The man is on the left side squeezing a bottle of Axe shower gel over his soap-covered chest while the woman stands in the same position on the right side, instead with a bottle of whipped cream in her hand and the cream swirled across her chest. There is an obvious contrast between the dark background and the light features at the center of the image that draw attention to the woman's bodily attributes. Additionally, water streams down behind the man and in front of a dark shower curtain, but the woman appears to be in front of a dark curtain in a bedroom setting. A sentence across the bottom of the image writes “The cleaner you are,” on the man's half and “the dirtier you get” on the woman's half. The disparity between each display exists within the realms of sexuality, and the oversexual nature of the woman's side becomes even more apparent through finer details.
The formal elements that objectify this woman are concrete examples of Berger's theories. First of all, the divided image immediately allows for a direct comparison between the man and woman. The woman, characterized by smooth, highlighted skin and a full face of makeup, has a much more striking presentation than the man. The brightness of the whipped cream on her body outshines the dull white of the soap bubbles on the man, directing the viewer's eyes to the chest of the female. Further, her eyes are closed, her mouth slightly opened, and her face tilted upwards in a lustful nature. Each of these qualities contribute to the establishment of an incredibly idealized and erotic figure. As the man is performing a normal action by taking a shower, the woman appears as an object of sexual desire and a “sight” as described by Berger. The objectification of the woman is furthered by the way the whipped cream is spread on her hourglass-shaped body. It mirrors the exact design of the shower gel bottle, reducing her to the same level of significance as the product itself.
Berger's theory of nudity is also presented in the image, adding to the woman's status as an object there to be looked at rather than present for a greater purpose. By Berger's definition, a viewer might perceive the man to be “naked,” because he is simply being “himself” taking a shower, while the woman is “nude” since her naked body has first been objectified. This contrast in presentation creates a suggestive false product outcome in which the woman is an object of sexual fantasy that male users desire to achieve by using the Axe shower gel. As a result, there exists positive reinforcement to male customers. Yet, the image materializes women by portraying the female in the ad in an extremely provocative light, and it has essentially stripped her of any existing identity or worth.
It is a problematic tendency by the media to continuously objectify both men and women within the current climate of gender equality and rights movements. As we try to dissipate the deeply rooted inequalities between men and women in society, these acts of dehumanization are vastly counterproductive. Not only do advertisements like this create barriers to improving the constructed expectations of each gender, but they also promote unhealthy and unrealistic self-images to women who view them. Forms of objectification may have improved from history through initiatives such as positive body image and gender equality movements, but we still see these demeaning images all over popular culture today. To combat the negative impact of objectification in the media, members of society must find a way to utilize and highlight the power of individual feminine and masculine attributes, rather than to severely undermine them.
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