How, and to What Extent, Does Advertising Subvert or Reinforce Cultural, Racial or Sexual Stereotypes?

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Advertising is virtually everywhere in everyday life. It communicates information about products or ideas through the mass media, which persuade or influence behaviour of viewer. Sexuality has been constantly being exploited in advertising, but somehow the exploitation depends on how people derive the meaning in an ad and decide whether it subverts or reinforces the culture.

Crowley (1993) argues that women are often being exploited as sex object. She summarized the representation of women in advertising and the media that,

“For more than a decade, research has found that the portrayal of women in the media and in advertising is grossly insufficient and inappropriate… Where women are portrayed they are too often shown as unintelligent, or sexy, or as housewives responsible only for housework. As one woman told Consumer Contact research in 1992 ‘you are either a bimbo or a drone – a sex object or a drudge’… Too often women are depicted as sex objects or victims of sensationalized and often violent sex crimes. Sexist stereotyping of women persists in journalism and advertising” (Crowley 1993).

Sex is used in advertising (some subtle, some blatant) because it is appealing to the viewer. According to Taflinger (1996), “sex is the second strongest psychological appeals, right behind self-preservation. Its strength is biological and instinctive, the genetic imperative of reproduction” (Taflinger, 1996). Thus, sex is used in advertising because it works effectively.

Over the centuries, women have always been shown as a beautiful, seductive image in advertisement. In the Tony White Nissan Ad “Simply Irresistible”, and the old ad of Bornhoff Bread, women were portrayed as seductive objects. In a negative view, these ads seemed to degrade and humiliate the women who appeared on the ads as well as the women who watched them. Feminists complained that, this sort of ad leads to a continuation of women being seen as objects, purely for sexual gratification of men (Lumby, 1997). And somehow it contributes towards a climate of fear, such as the increasing level of rape, sexual abuse and harassment occurring in the society.

From the past decade, feminists have joined forces with conservative critics of the media and popular culture. According to Lumby (1997), “feminists have campaigned against ‘sexist’ ads and denounced violent and sexual content in books, films, magazines, music video and video games.” These feminists have called for government inquires into potentially corrupting effects of new media technologies and have lobbies for new forms of censorship for kinds of popular medium (Lumby, 1997, p.xii).

An ad, photographed by Helmut Newton, that was used to advertise a watch for the Sydney Jeweller, was forced to withdraw the ad. The Australian Advertising Standards Council was inundating with complaints and most complained that the ad was sexist and the scene degraded and humiliated women. But with an objective view, the ad depicted is more sexy than sexist. Lumby (1997) argued that the ad scene was like a common portrait of sexual intimacy played out in different ways in millions of Australian homes daily. “One partner expresses desire, while the other savours the attention before reciprocating” (Lumby, 1997, p.1). The ad scene is non-violent and the both the models are consenting adults. The ad scene seems to objectify the man than degrading the woman.

“It is the most offensive advertisement I have ever been subjected to. It conveys that dangerously misleading message that women condone and enjoy being molested by men and that this behaviour is completely normal. It objectifies women, demeans women and advocates sexual harassment and abuse, which is absolutely unacceptable. I am disgusted by this advertisement and feel that printing it is yet another crime against women…” (Lumby, p.3)

Cheryl Kernot, leader of the Australian Democrats, after received the above complain, denounced the ad as ‘derogatory and...
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