The new mind game advertisers play on women

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January is like a giant post-breakup montage. In these heady weeks, you might threaten to quit sugar, learn Mandarin, or ditch the job that buys your self-esteem for $25 an hour (plus super). You might eat kale. And somehow it all feels pure and real because the air is thick with possibilities.

But it’s not just the heatwaves and daytime drinking that’s rendering our cynicism dormant. Everywhere we look, we are being met by rallying cries (“New year, new you!!!!!”) and promises to fix the myriad things likely to get in our way of True Happiness this year. 

In the past week alone, for example, I’ve been sent bargain offers on ‘muffin top covers’, tattoo reduction cream (#optimism) and hair chalks that would finally let me “go crazy with hair colour and still maintain my Monday-Friday office look”.  Admittedly, I was kind of moved by the pathos of putting chalk in our hair to distinguish our work and private selves (though not enough to part ways with $24.00), but the rest just made me wonder – do companies really expect us to fall for these pretend things that claim to magically improve our lives?

An ad campaign by Cintia gym, where the sculpted body marketed as the new 'summer collection'.

An ad campaign by Cintia gym, where the sculpted body marketed as the new 'summer collection'.

Of course, that’s before I read about “arm corsets”. Just as you think designers have run out of ways to contain wobbly flesh, UK retail giant Marks & Spencer surprised everyone with their lace arm tourniquets last month. “Designed to be worn under sleeveless tops”, these “snug fabric tubes” will keep your upper arms looking taunt so you can wave with the abandon of a drowning person like you’ve always wanted. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would trade their upper-body circulation for non-wobbly arms. But the real surprise?  The sleeves were sold out almost immediately online.

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As writer Eva Wiseman laments in a recent Guardian article, it’s not that control underwear is anything new, but the “sudden availability [of arm corsets] on the high street makes us aware of things that we didn’t realise we needed to worry about. Aware that yet another area of our bodies has been marked unfit for use.”

I am all for letting my upper arms go free style. But as I lined up all the things that claim to have ‘corrective properties’ at home, I realised I was no stranger to the self-improvement trap. Despite always having prided myself on only buying the ‘bare essentials’, my personal grooming collection suggested otherwise. Did I really need four different kinds of moisturisers for my face? What about those ‘sake yeast masks’ I never used? Is it any less naïve to believe in things like “preventative skin care” than forking out for latex-based quick fixes?

But before we weigh ourselves down with guilt, let’s take a look at what got us here in the first place. Whereas advertisers of yore relied on fear marketing to create new commercial needs, these days most female-centric brands have tapped into a more powerful narrative – the mantra of “you, only better”.

Cosmetic companies are particularly devoted to this technique, as are high-end gym ads. One only needs to take a look at Equinox's 2013 campaign (shot by Terry Richardson, no less) to realise that fitness is 99 percent aspiration, 1 percent perspiration. In this world, every woman is a work in progress. No one is ever fat, just pre-skinny; nor miserable, just pre-happy. In other words, no matter where you are in life, there’s always room to be better. ("Because you're worth it!")

In the book Bodies, author and psychotherapist Susie Orbach  (Of Fat is a Feminist Issue fame) explains the lure of ‘empowerment’ marketing:  “We reject the idea of being under ‘assault’ from the beauty industry as offensive to our intelligence…[Instead], we transform the sense of being criticised by becoming the moving and enthusiastic actor in our own self-development programme. We will eagerly repair what is wrong.”

By internalising the pressure to perfect ourselves, argues Orbach, we develop an odd sense of attachment to the very companies that are bent on exploiting us. “It is as though, once having had our faults pointed out, we seize the chance to enhance ourselves by embracing the market’s propositions...We see ourselves as agents, not victims.”

Perhaps no one managed to crystallise this sales tactic better than the late cosmetics mogul, Helena Rubinstein, who invented the concept of “problem skin types” (dry, oily combination) and immortalised the saying, “There are no ugly women, only lazy ones” – a mentality that’s still being pushed by advertisers today.   

In this sense, what sounds ostensibly like the language of female empowerment in fact serves to lull us into becoming more accepting of our place in the world – a world where women are valued not for “the power to do, but the power to attract.”

                     

When we talk about the female consumer culture, there’s often a tendency to conflate “choice” with “freedom”.  And while we certainly have the economic power to opt in or out of beauty trends, as Jezebel writer Jenna Sauers points out, it’s easy to forget the social and cultural context in which we’re making these choices – even with a simple act like putting on makeup.

“We're only supposed to appreciate or be interested in makeup as a form of play and personal expression; we're supposed to ignore the social and political contexts,” writes Sauers, “I think it's overly simple, and it does a disservice to the varieties of women's lived experience in the complicated and politically inflected arena of what the women's magazines refer to, grandly, as 'beauty'."

So rather than being empowered to chase these rigid feminine ideals, let’s yearn for freedom from them.  And we’ll do well to remember our hunger for change is anything but arbitrary – no matter what time of the year it is. 

11 comments

  • I admit, i'm confused by the headline. None of this is really 'new'.

    The nature of capitalism is expending markets - the drive for more and bigger growth and profits. This requires constant evolution and development of new markets. Unfortunately, existing markets are always finite - there are only so many people to buy your stuff.

    So, the solution is to create new markets. Convince people they need things that they didn't need before, then sell it to them. If they can find or create a new market by exploiting a trend or vulnerability, they will. I don't really think this is specifically a gender thing, except in the sense that it's exploiting physical insecurity - try and find an ad for men's clothing, health or personal items that doesn't feature a perfectly-sculpted Adonis, for example.

    Commenter
    DM
    Date and time
    January 11, 2013, 10:24AM
    • Except that it *is* new - where once advertisers were more open about preying on people's fears, 'If you don't buy this you won't get a man', 'If you don't moisturise you'll look old' etc. They now call their fear-driven advertising 'empowering.' Eg, "moisturise because you're worth it!'
      The advertising market is mimicking the most recent sexual revolution inasmuch as it's telling women that to behave in a particular (narrowly-defined) way is not disempowering, (which of course it is) but liberating!

      Commenter
      Sheba
      Date and time
      January 11, 2013, 11:23AM
  • If you don't agree with the message the advertisers are pushing then don't buy their products. Pretty simple really. Personally I think it would be great if more people were actually in some semblance of good health rather than having over half the population overweight or obese but hey it's up to you. Good to see that you aren't pushing the myth that men don't have the same pressures.

    Commenter
    Hurrow
    Date and time
    January 11, 2013, 10:34AM
    • Agreed Hurrow, it would be fantastic if people (of both genders!) could live healthier lifestyles - however, I suspect buying eyeliner or even joining a gym as part of a New Year's resolution is probably not going to achieve that! A lot of these 'self improvement' sales pitches are based on a quick fix, meaning that most of the people will probably quit working out/eating healthy within a month when they don't see any changes :(

      Commenter
      andilee
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      January 11, 2013, 5:02PM
  • A world where women are valued not for “the power to do, but the power to attract.”

    Yep. Sounds about right.

    Commenter
    shinysilverpyjamas
    Date and time
    January 11, 2013, 11:24AM
    • What a clever way to incorporate those advertisements into your website by presenting them as part of a story critical of advertising. I expect we'll be seeing a lot more of this thing, you internet marketers are very clever

      Commenter
      Chris
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      January 11, 2013, 12:21PM
      • Dude, you need to get back on your meds. Your paranoia is taking over! I await your treatise on how the government is secretly poisoning our glands.

        Commenter
        Lila
        Date and time
        January 11, 2013, 12:48PM
      • I don’t think it’s conspiratorial to say that marketers are always trying to spread their message and don’t really let ethics or scruples get in the way. This is the media, it is a business, it is designed to make a profit. Obviously, the logical thing to assume is that this is a new method of product placement, and quite an ingenious one at that.

        Commenter
        Chris
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        January 11, 2013, 1:20PM
    • It's Jenna Sauer, not Saunter.

      And the title of this article on your home page is saying 'tnsformation', instead of 'transformation'.

      Commenter
      meness
      Date and time
      January 11, 2013, 1:13PM
      • "the late cosmetics mogul, Helena Rubinstein, who invented the concept of “problem skin types” (dry, oily combination)"

        AHA!!! I KNEW IT. Just like cellulite and how much money you have to spend to never get rid of it is a concept invented by French cosmetic companies so that a fool and HER money will ever be parted.

        Commenter
        layla
        Date and time
        January 11, 2013, 1:15PM

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