[This article was published in Atgimimas in February 2009 (in Lithuanian). It was translated by professional translators for public procurement purposes. The copyright of the original article belongs to the publisher of Atgimimas, Pilietinės minties institutas, and the copyright of this English translation belongs to Gravitas Partners. The archives of Atgimimas are no longer available online.]
“I am Ericsson and this is my wife Sonia Ericsson – only three cents per minute,” says a neatly coiffed blond man. In the next shot, grinning “Sonia” is already seated on a table, manifestly ready for whatever is going to fetch her the paltry three cents.
Never mind that the “client” in this commercial did not ask for “Ericsson’s” soliciting services, nor his wife’s (who does not even speak for herself), they only needed a phone. A worthy businessman must cater to his clients’ unexpressed desires – they, the providers of services, know better what their clients want than the clients themselves. And an enticing “sonia” of one sort or another is an absolutely indispensable addition to a handset, a record-player or a refrigerator.
Whatever one can say about reforms in political representation or the labour market, advertising, seemingly a very modern and dynamic sphere of public life, is probably the last one to be rid of entrenched gender stereotypes. Women in advertising are either housewives, entirely absorbed into picking the best washing powder to please her family, or pretty dolls that come as a prize for clients who choose the “right” product or service. The fact that, since the 1990 independence, women in Lithuanian have transitioned from being wives and mothers to sexual objects (not even subjects – a subject has the power to choose instead of merely being chosen) is hardly progress.
Differences in advertising targeted at men and women are manifest. Ads for men send the message “pick this product and a chick or two will come running after you”, while those for women speak differently: “pick this product and prince charming will deign to take notice of you”. Gilette ads are a good case in point of the first category. Shave cleanly and fragrantly – and at least one sleekly-clad beauty will come to caress your macho chin.
The second category is well exemplified by the video where the hand of destiny (male hand, to be sure) throws a banana skin to a gasping silly girl so she can slip and fall, all goggle-eyed, into the lap of some handsome prince. Unfortunately, all the slipping and falling made her forget to use the “right” deodorant and now she must face her prince sweaty and smelly. The prince, obviously, will not accept her like that, even though his own personal hygiene might follow the maxim “deodorant? Who cares?”
It makes little difference whether women in advertising are ladies who live for “love and beauty” or modern working careerists. Both have just one great worry in their minds – will HE notice the flat hairdo, appalling dandruff or faded hues of the dress? And consequently, god forbid, will refuse her.
We live in the world where princesses, with or without half the kingdom, still come as a prize for accomplished quests. And, just like in fairy tales, the lucky one is often, or almost exclusively, the idiot third brother. He might not have the looks nor the smarts – nor any personal charm – but he makes it as long as there is some magic helper like Mister Clean.
The girl will go with the one who will wash the dishes first or clean the rooms – no one really gives much though to whether or not she finds the idiot third brother attractive as a man. Even if there is an illusion of the girl’s free choice, the most she can do is set the parameters.
And when the stunning beauty says: “I will dance with him who has the smallest one,” the valiant user of the “right” product knows: all he has to do is consume “right” and not only will he win the prize, but also be spared the embarrassment in front of his puzzled male peers – for he has the smallest phone.
This is the simple age-old logical sequence: you accomplish you task – you get your prize in the form of a female body. And even in fairy tales, accomplishing quests requires help of magic wands, flutes or carpets. Today, the position is readily filled by advertised products.
The fact that this kind of advertising invites increasingly little debate attests to silent acceptance of the situation whereby a woman is and will continue to be confined to the role of pretty packaging for the “right” product. Would anyone pay the slightest attention to a small grey record-player, unless it is attached to the hand of a radiant nude beauty? Can’t anyone see, though, that such ads exhibit contempt to both women and men whose decisions are reduced to basic physiological responses?
A closer look should reveal how insulting the advertisers’ idea that their target audience is like the dog in biology textbooks: if one switches a light bulb before feeding it several times, the next time the bulb alone will make the dog salivate. Correspondingly, advertising negates the power of male consumers to make rational choices and evaluate the product on its merits – something which is completely redundant anyway. It suffices that the consumer will salivate with desire to consume upon being shown a familiar picture. That the “right” sausage will bring forth the image of a woman’s curvature. That the “right” small handset will remind of that blonde offering herself as a premium.
Advertising, which uses all the available visual means to stuff everyone with viagra of unrestrained consumption (so that the ordinary man believes, like that Santa in a commercial, that Christmas or any other consumption-infested holiday makes everything possible), has any use of a person’s self-respect and dignity only to the extent that it can use them as yet another argument for choosing the “right” product. To that end, however, half-conscious and therefore easily manipulated lusty impulses are much more handy.
Everyone has long ceased to believe that advertising is just a market mechanism that helps inform consumers about new products and their qualities. Advertising shapes not only the structure of consumption but also its vocabulary and lingo, habits and images. The saddest thing in all this is that these silent, yet widely grinning and servile “sonias” bombard our young, too, on a daily basis. They are left with no alternative views or objective explanations and must figure out themselves what is so special about that chocolate bar one bite of which gets you forcefully embraced by a gentleman with a crown on his sleeve – or why you should consider how much a girl eats before deciding whether to go on a date with her. Forget about adult men – five-year-olds are experts enough: “In order to find a girlfriend, you must have healthy teeth.”
The young generation will have to find other ways to learn that a person has the power to make more complex judgements, that women can do more than decorate a product, that they can be creators as well as muses, that men can be more than machos, that some are sensitive and delicate personalities, that a person’s worth is not measured by “right” handsets, that in the real world one does not pick a partner by how fast they wash dishes or any other “technical” parameter.
One can only seek comfort in the fact that there still remain alternative value systems to shape the young. And look forward for the establishment of the Gender Equality Institute – courtesy of the European Union – before we are completely numbed and adapted to the images of advertising. It will indeed have much to do here.