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17 Jun 2019 | Blog

We are what we consume

“ ‘If I can crack that market … It will be like opening a new gold mine right in our front yard,’ he [George Washington Hill, president of the American Tobacco Company] told Edward Bernays, the man hired to convince women how smoking cigarettes would land them a worthwhile victory in the fight for equality.”

Nuvodita Singh, Idunn Lullau, Holthe & Fatima Jabeen

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“Posturing cigarettes – or “torches of freedom” – as a symbol for women’s liberation”?

Calling cigarettes “torches of freedom” does not seem like a good marketing ploy by any stretch of the imagination. But the man touted as the father of public relations – Edward Bernays – boldly moved forward with this strategy in the US back in the 1920s to bolster cigarette sales. What was truly remarkable was that the campaign was based on the pretense of promoting female liberation and gender equality – at a time when it was almost blasphemous for women to be seen smoking in public! Sales did soar following this push, and cigarettes became a commodity associated with progressive women and freedom.

Marketing and advertisement campaigns have definitely transformed since then, but they still wield a powerful influence on our behaviour as consumers. This International Women’s Day, let us take a look at some advertisements over the years that have struck a chord in the public consciousness for their portrayal of women and gender. How has advertising through different media contributed to the cause of gender equality and/or feminism? Have marketing strategies and outlook changed with the changing times? Or are advertisers just creating an illusion of women’s empowerment to feed capitalist needs?

Our consumption surely goes beyond the product that is being advertised, to the “idea” that is being sold. This is why many corporations have been able to benefit from the larger sociocultural societal trends, including the struggle for gender equality. A more recent example is this advertisement by Ariel, encouraging men to #sharetheload in domestic chores, and pitching their own detergent at the same time. Almost a century after the “torches of freedom”, this detergent advertisement is still exploiting the prevalent sentiments on limiting gender roles, although the former example did try to blatantly create a trend by commercializing feminism. This persistent promotion of products and consumerism under the premise of championing women’s liberation is concerning. Hopefully, viewers and readers can understand that gender equality is not about burning “torches of freedom”, not about women doing all the same things as men, and definitely not what advertisers – usually men – decide is in vogue.

It is evident that advertisements over the years have tried to play on the female psyche and body. Back in the early 1900s, women’s fashion started to change from the Victorian-styled long-sleeved, ground-dragging dresses (with hardly any display of skin) to short-sleeved, upwards-creeping dresses. This time, the torch bearer of “women’s freedom” was King C. Gillette, an American man in his 60s, who ran the eponymous company that sells razors even today. Eyeing the untapped half of the market, Gillette saw the opportunity to cash in on the growing women’s liberation movement and the more liberal fashion ideas that came with it. And so started the campaign for women’s “clean”, “smooth”, and “silky” armpits. Gillette contrived several campaigns stigmatizing women’s body hair – a personal problem to be embarrassed of – and this shifted public perception. It made hair removal wildly essential for the masses. Women in ancient Roman and Egypt did indulge in hair removal as a fashion and beauty statement as well, but this 1900s trend was unique in that it came as a result of a top–down marketing campaign intending to maximize a company’s profit by determining what women’s bodies should look like.

This vintage ad suggests that having an upper lip fuzz is an unlovable trait

This early 20th-century print media ad of Zip razor implies that body hair is something to be embarrassed of

Many advertisements also tend to target one of two genders (invariably limited to male/female) by pitching their products as the ultimate medium to seek the attention of the other gender – think perfumes, aftershaves, hair removal creams, toothpastes, and even chocolates and ice creams. This portrayal seems to aggrandize seeking the affections of others to feel secure, and promote consumerist tendencies along the way.

Does marketing and advertising reflect our society, or does it create and promote certain notions about gender? Would people have bought and used these products without advertisements that promote skewed gender norms or use feminism as a plug? And in cashing in on the feminist movement, do advertisements spread the message of female empowerment and gender equality, or does the accompanying consumerism simply create an illusion of empowerment? While beautiful women in short dresses are used to promote Ruslan Vodka in Nepal, this does not fit well with society’s general conceptions and expectations of what young Nepali girls should do on their Friday nights. And although instances of positive, progressive marketing are rare, there are some that buck the trend. Billie razors are a pro-women’s body image product that acknowledges women’s natural body hair – the product is not pushed to consumers and rather presented as a choice.

It may be worthwhile to think about the extent of our consumption of advertisements and marketing strategies, and to what extent we are influenced by them in making economic decisions. Going back to Bernays’s “torches of freedom” marketing campaign, readers will hopefully understand that a movement for women’s liberation or gender equality does not mean that women have to do what men do, or that they have to subscribe to all presented standards or lifestyle at all. We need to be aware of the artifice and dangers of the ideal that is being fed to us, especially when it may lead to a twisted sense of freedom or – worse – cancer and a slow and painful death.

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