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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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The recent rise of the consumer culture has resulted in a surge on the importance of advertising, “it is estimated that the average US citizen sees or hears, 3,000 adverts each day” (Kilbourne 2000 cited in Gill, 2007 p 73). The necessity for advertisement is so vital that, Leiss, Kline and Jhally (1986) have estimated advertising to be “the most consistent body of material in the mass media” (Gill 2007, p73). Throughout the years, advertising has been the focus of widespread feminist criticism and debate. Gill asserts that the reason for this is due to the fact that “gender ideology is the single biggest resource for advertisers.” (Sut Jhally 1987, cited in Gill 2007, p 73). The analysis regarding the portrayal of females in advertisements has been on going since the late 1960s. Additionally, the field of advertising has been a centre for activist movements,  such as protests of companies portraying females in a belittling manner and sticker campaigns emphasising women's irritation towards the way in which they are being represented in billboards and magazines (Gill, 2007, p 74).

The first ever study conducted on advertising found that “one third of adverts showed women as domestic agents who were dependent upon men, and nearly half portrayed women as household functionaries…” (Gill, 2007, p 78).  The study was conducted by the National Organization of women and examined over 1,200 commercials shown in the US. It was also reported from the study that many of the advertisements illustrated women as ‘decorative objects' and as ‘unintelligent'. As new forms of advertising are being established, the way in which women are being represented in also being discussed more than ever. Luxury brands, which are the center of attention within the fashion industry across the world such as Dolce and Gabbana, Gucci and many more are being criticized for the way in which women are depicted within their ads. The use of the shock factor is very common amongst advertising campaigns, as it grabs the audience's attention, gets people talking about the campaign, and makes the brand more memorable. The importance of the shock factor in advertisements is highlighted by Daniel Hennesy, CEO of Hennessy Capital LLC, who was quoted in Forbes (Agrawal,2016), “The cleverest thing an advertiser can do is the opposite of what everyone else is doing, sometimes it's risky, yes; but it's better to be talked about than not talked about." By ‘starting conversations' about the brand, it leads to creating a well-known, global ‘brand.'

Luxury branding is not just the service and product, it is beyond that.

Fifield defines branding as “a set of consistent meanings which belong to and exist separately from the product or service offering” (Fifield 2008, p.252). From this we can clearly infer that branding is about the way in which the customer feels and what they think about the brand as a whole, beyond just the products they provide. The capacities of a brand are shown through a range of the marketing mix (Moutinho and Southern, 2010, p 383). Moutinho and Southern also reiterate the correlation between reputation and identity which lead to creating a ‘brand' (2010, p 272). Reputation and identity are very significant within a company, as it is the first point of contact with their target market, (which is when they hear about the brand).  The corporate brand is also an illustration of the company's performance to others – “a brand that spans an entire company (which can have disparate underlying product brands): and … conveys expectations of what the company will deliver in terms of products, services and customer experience,” (Argenti and Druckenmiller 2004, cited in Moutinho and Southern, 2010 p 272).

If the ‘branding' of a luxury fashion company is positive and successful, this means that the brand itself will benefit mainly through financial profits. This economic advantage is significant because it means that there will be a perceived higher quality for the products and perceived higher value for the brand, which leads to the brand being distinctive amongst others within the consumers mind.

This would eventually increase the number customers and ultimately bring the company huge profits (Fifield, 2008). One of the ways in which a positive branding image is achieved is that the marketers of the company use the marketing mix to position the brand and also to establish brand value through the marketing mix. The marketing mix is a key framework used to market a product and includes: Product, Price, Promotion and Place. The key to having a successful product is to promote the right product, in the right place at the right time.  Promotion is one of the vital steps; promotion campaigns “may be directed at customers or the distribution channel with the intent of increasing demand or improving product availability” (Moutihno and Southern, 2010 p388).

Through positive branding, the customer loyalty is increased by managing the risk for them in 2 ways; this is through “performance risk” and “psychological risk”. (Keller, 2003 cited in Moutinho and Southern, 2010). Performance risk is when the brand provides a promise of predictability and monotony in their quality of products, service and many more. Whereas, psychological risk is when they deliver and maintain a certain image and social suitability.

As mentioned earlier, during recent years, the portrayal of females within advertising specifically luxury fashion has been widely discussed. The focus is that often females are portrayed negatively, such as being objectified, but in some cases positive representations of empowered females have also been brought to the surface. Sexuality is very common amongst advertisements, which involve female models, and this is due to the “high levels of themes and behaviour we see in the media everyday.” (Courtney& Edison, 2005). It is widely accepted that mass media, more specifically advertisements, are examined in order to define societies in different cultures. Due to globalization, most fashion brands are internationally known and therefore demonstrate ‘common values' (Soloaga et al, 2008, p 292). The way in which these brands choose to advertise is very significant because it affects audiences in many ways as it transmits messages, which tells the audiences how they should consume and behave, therefore it is giving individuals, social norms which are accepted by the majority. Therefore, by using social stereotypes and symbols in printed ads which most of the consumers understand, it creates a simple way of thinking and communicating (Soloaga et al, 2008, p 292).

Moreover, within different cultures, what we choose to wear defines us and differentiates us from one another, as clothes are a representation of our own personality and identity (Entwistle and Wilson, 2001 cited in Soloaga et al 2008 p 293). Horn and Gruel (1981, cited in Soloaga et al 2008) mention how many authors emphasise that clothes portray our personality. This is a psychological approach, which is “taken into account and exploited by luxury brands marketers in order to sell more items. They know that consumers need to express themselves and tell stories about their personality, aspirations and way of life. As a result, something, which was initially an element that differentiates the personal identity, becomes an element of equalization or even alienation,” (Soloaga, 2008, p 292).

Females are objectified through their sexual portrayal in luxury fashion advertisements, which is simply justified as ‘sex sells'. Fredrickson and Roberts quoted that, “objectification occurs whenever a woman's body, body parts, or sexual functions are separated out from her person, reduced to the status of mere instruments, or regarded as if they were capable of representing her,” (1997, p.175). This implies that once the female is objectified, they are thought of as just bodies, which merely exist for the pleasure of others (specifically, men).

Objectification theory (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997) provides a significant insight of how women are portrayed in advertisements. The theory suggests that women are sexually objectified and belittled to a passive object by others, this occurs when a female's body is disconnected from her as an individual and she is regarded merely as “an object of male sexual desire” (Bartky, 1990 cited in Szymanski et al. 2011, p8). Objectification theory has become key in examining and analysing ways in which women are depicted within the mass media, it is also a central theory to several academic feminist research (Szymanski et al, 2011, p7).

Sexual objectification of women is found everywhere within the media, as well as found from personal experiences of women. Szymanski et al (2011, p10), discusses APA's (2007b) analysis of portrayals of females in the media such as billboards, TV, music videos, magazines and many more. This analysis found that women are represented in a sexualized and objectified way, more often than men were, this included dressing provocatively, highlighting body parts and also serving as attractive objects within an environment. Moreover, females depicted in the media are repeatedly the focus of men's sexist remarks.

The objectification of women in a sexual manner is affecting women in various ways, this is evident in their sexual orientation, race, social class, as the media has found ways to overly sexualize and exploit these in order to gain male audience attention. This is by making, for example, lesbian relationships a subject of male fantasies by over sexualizing them and often showing two lesbian women and one man having sexual relations. An example of this is Gucci's advertisement in 2016 for their ‘Gucci Guilty' fragrance (See Appendix 1) featuring a male model and two female models in the bath suggesting a sexual relationship between the three models pictured in the ad. APA (2007b) also mentions that former research has also suggested that the media frequently paints a thin and often unreachable standard of women's physical body image and this is associated how a sexy woman should look like (Szymansky et al, 2011, p10).

As discussed earlier, females are frequently sexualized in advertisements for the pleasure of men. As a result of sexual objectification in advertisements and the media Laura Mulvey, coined the notion of the ‘male gaze' in 1975. Mulvey suggested that this theory is focused on the idea that the male is active where as the female is passive (Mulvey, 1999). The man is constantly the one who is ‘gazing' at the female in a way to objectify her, this is because females are thought of as being looked at for pleasure, and are in a role of obedience.

A study in 2005 by Soloaga et al (2008) examined over a 5-month period, women's luxury magazines such as Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire. Advertisements from the magazines were analyzed; a total of 290 luxury advertisements were studied. The aim was to see the different types of female stereotypes included in the magazines. The advertisements were split into categories. However, it is important to note that, “most of the advertisements were about perfume (42.5%) followed by accessories such as bags and shoes (26.9%). We also found clothing advertisements (10.9%), lingerie (10.2%), and (4%) cosmetics and beauty treatments (5.5%)” (Soloaga et al, 2008, p294). The findings (Appendix 2) of the study show that a majority of women were presented as sexual beings and many were also depicted as objects, which reflects the objectification theory.

On the contrary, post feminist studies have shown that using the female body in advertisements can also be a celebration of female empowerment. This has become an ongoing topic throughout recent advertisements. An example of this is the Dove campaign, which features models of all body types and shapes (Appendix 3) (Drake, 2017, p593). It is also reported that when asked 92% of females were more likely to remember a brand's name when advertisements were empowering and could recall a recent advertisement which empowered females (Drake, 2017, p 595). This clearly emphasizes the rise of female empowerment advertisements in recent years.

Recent reports have shown that due to the change of the female roles, and the increased economic and social independence which females have today within society, marketing and advertising for females has also changed in a way that correctly mirrors the current social situation (Sivulika, 2009 cited in Drake, 2017, p 593).  Goldman (1992, cited in Gill, 2008, p 8) created the expression 'commodity feminism' to clearly depict ways in which publicists tried to combine the cultural influence of feminism whilst at the same time counteracting or controlling the strength of its social analysis. Susan Douglas quoted that, “Advertising agencies had figured out how to make feminism -- and anti feminism work for them, the appropriation of feminist desires and feminist rhetoric by Revlon, Lancome and other major corporations was nothing short of spectacular. Women's liberation metamorphosed into female narcissism unchained as political concepts like liberation and equality were collapsed into distinctly personal, private desires” (Douglas, 1994 p.247-8 quoted in Gill, 2008, p 8).

Thus, we have witnessed a change in advertising, where once females were objectified to those who are self-reliant and freethinking, consequently empowered. Empowerment is defined as “inspiring women to confidently take control and responsibility for their identity and choices” (Drake, 2017, p 594).  However, a new term has been coined in order to highlight the empowerment of females in advertisement which has become evident in recent years, this is known as “Femvertising” which is defined as “Advertising that employs pro-female talent, messages and imagery to empower women and girls” (SheKnows Media, 2015).

The sudden change and focus on women's empowerment has occurred as advertising companies have stated that "Women currently comprise a $14-trillion market, and their purchasing power is expected to grow significantly over the coming years, as their piece of the purchasing pie grows, women are increasingly demanding that brands build more respectful and empowering messages and images into their ads that target women," (Samantha Skey quoted in SheKnows Media, 2018). Drake (2017, p 595) claims that empowering ads on YouTube “have more than doubled” and that females are more likely to remember and purchase products from a brand that is constantly empowering females.  

Gill explains the way in which women have created this shift in the advertising business. She mentions that instead of acting in anger about being represented in a negative way, such as being objectified, women have instead changed the way they are being represented by acting on it.  The females represented in recent ads, are females who are sexually authoritative. Recent research has disputed the notion of “posing an overly monolithic and negative account, and has looked at the cracks and fissures where women's expressions of sexual desire do break through, or for spaces where they may feel freer to articulate their own pleasures and longings,” (Gill, 2008, p6).

The recent female depicted in ads is a woman who plays with her sexual control, this has come to be known in advertising as “the midriff” (Gill, 2008, p 10). The reason for this term is due to the part of the body often showed in ads in 1990s and the 2000s, (Quart, 2003; Rushkoff, cited in Gill, 2008, p 10). The midriff emphasis the body and shows a clear shift “ from objectification to sexual subjectification, a pronounced discourse of choice and autonomy, and an emphasis upon empowerment” (Gill, 2008, p 10). The fact that the midriff is in the centre of the body needs to be stressed as previously, this was central for female labour and how they were valued where as, now it is a body, as Bordo (1993, cited in Gill, 2008, p10) discusses, that a smooth and toned body represents wealth and success. An example of how the representation of the female body has changed is shown clearly in a Wonder Bra advertisement, where a woman wearing a black bra and in the middle of the cleavage it reads  'I can't cook. Who cares?' (Appendix 4). From this it can clearly be inferred that the advertisement is making a statement that her body and breasts are more significant than stereotypical female skills (Gill, 2008 p 11).

Moreover, it is key to underline that the female body is now a way of a female showing her identity, in contrast to previous decades where female's only way to be valued and express herself was through being a mother and housewife. However, today women are valued for a number of reasons such as being good mothers but simultaneously for being sexy, independent and owning their sexual desires.

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