Today, while driving through Sunset Strip (a stretch of Sunset Blvd famous for it’s advertising), I noticed a 100% trend in the images displayed. It was so obvious, I started looking for exceptions, and couldn’t find any! This particular month, nearly all the billboards are displaying human figures. The ratio of women to men on the billboards was about 4:1, perhaps more, and the portrayal of these human beings differed dramatically.
Following the classic advertising mantra “sex sells”, the women, without fail, were portrayed either in bikinis, monokinis, bras, topless, or in the act of taking their clothes off (or having them removed by external forces). The unspoken messages in these pictures said that women are passive, readily available, disposable, pretty, and sexy. The women’s bodies were used to advertise everything from watches to beer to vitamins. In one advertisement for … beer? Vegas? I’m not even sure what it was promoting!…a woman in a barely-there monokini was draped seductively & unconsciously (is that even possible?) over ice, next to some beer. You could grab a beer, or a woman. Whatever. Just take whatever you want–you know, human being, beverage, what’s the difference?
On the other hand, the few billboards depicting men advertised upcoming television and film events in which men have the starring role. Each man was depicted as strong, confident, bold. This man would control his own destiny, using his wits, his weapons, (and sometimes comedy), as a pirate, a civil war soldier, a kung-fu fighter, a vampire, a prize-fighter. The unspoken message–that men are active, strong, often violent, and adventure seeking–could not have been clearer.
We take this for granted, because we have been surrounded by advertising culture since infancy (think Mad Men), and longer. It is such a natural part of our surroundings, we rarely question the way in which these images shape our understanding of self and gender.
When a young girl grows up being bombarded by these kinds of images (and many, many more), what part of herself do you think she’ll focus on? Will she be encouraged to develop her sharp sense of humor, or increase her self-reliance and determination? Will she see a world of adventure and possibility lying before her, waiting for her to take bold action? Will she deepen her compassion by engaging in humanitarian service, or develop wisdom by extensive reading and thoughtful reflection?
There is so much more to being human than these trite gender stereotypes allow. Since when was being a man all about being tough and violent? Sure, it’s a persistent theme amongst adolescent boys, but eventually those boys grow up. Why shouldn’t they grow into articulate, thoughtful men who have developed enough maturity to reason with each other, think before speaking, reflect before acting, and apply wisdom and compassion when problem-solving?
Okay, perhaps it’s an idealized world I’m describing. The truth is, especially here in Los Angeles, there are plenty of shallow women who only care about appearances. And likewise, there are plenty of men in this country who believe violence is the answer. But is this the way it should be? Is this the kind of world we want for ourselves? Is this the legacy we leave to our children?
If we are going to change things, then we need to look hard at the cultural forces and attitudes that have brought us here, and decide how we can make things different in the future. Advertising firms, in particular: I’m looking at you.
If you feel similarly, please don’t sit by and let the world do it’s thing. Speak up whenever you have an opportunity. You never know when an ad exec might be listening, or maybe just a young, impressionable mind who needs to hear your words of reason in a culture of insanity!
Also, in case you haven’t seen it, here is a link to a great one-minute film called Beauty Pressure / Onslaught that I mentioned in a previous post.
The truth about advertising: