I always love a good behind-the-scenes marketing story and last month NPR reported that Proctor & Gamble is facing falling men’s razor sales as beards have become more fashionable. Their response? To put more pressure on men to shave other parts of their bodies.
Always a glutton for punishment, I set out to discover just how they were going to try to convince men to do this… and I was not disappointed.
Gillette has hired models to convince men to shave, well, their whole body. A slightly longer ad featuring three of them begins with the question, “What do you say to a guy who grooms everything?” To which they answer, “Yaaaaaaay!” No really.
This is the sexual objectification of male bodies. The use of threats like “you’ll be disgusting to women if you don’t do what we say” is a form of social control. One point for capitalism over its long-enduring opponent in the male hygiene and grooming market: gender ideology.
One conventional explanation for our economic problems seems to be that our businesses are strapped for funds. Greater business earnings, it is said, will translate into needed investment, employment, consumption and, finally, sustained economic recovery. Thus, the preferred policy response: provide business with greater regulatory freedom and relief from high taxes and wages.
It is this view that underpins current business and government support for new corporate tax cuts and trade agreements designed to reduce government regulation of business activity, attacks on unions, and opposition to extending unemployment benefits and increasing the minimum wage.
One problem with this story is that businesses are already swimming in money and they haven’t shown the slightest inclination to use their funds for investment or employment.
The first chart below highlights the trend in free cash flow as a percentage of GDP. Free cash flow is one way to represent business profits. More specifically, it is a pretax measure of the money firms have after spending on wages and salaries, depreciation charges, amortization of past loans, and new investment. As you can see that ratio remains at historic highs. In short, business is certainly not short of money.
So what are businesses doing with their funds? The next chart looks at the ratio of net private nonresidential fixed investment to net domestic product (I use “net” rather than “gross” variables in order to focus on investment that goes beyond simply replacing worn out plant and equipment). The ratio makes clear that one reason for the large cash flow is that businesses are not committed to new investment. Indeed quite the opposite is true.
Rather than invest in plant and equipment, businesses are primarily using their funds to repurchase their own stocks in order to boost management earnings and ward off hostile take-overs, pay dividends to stockholders, and accumulate large cash and bond holdings.
Cutting taxes, deregulation, attacking unions and slashing social programs will only intensify these very trends. Time for a new understanding of our problems and a very new response to them.
A majority of both Democrats and Republicans believe that economic inequality in the U.S. has grown, but they disagree as to its causes and the best solutions, according to a new survey from the Pew Research Center. While 61% of Republicans and 68% of Democrats say inequality has widened, only 45% of Republicans say that the government should do something about it, compared to 90% of Democrats. A study using the General Social Survey has confirmed the findings.
Republicans and Democrats also disagree about what the best interventions would be. At least three-quarters of Democrats favor taxes on the wealthy and programs for the poor, but 65% of Republicans think that helping the poor does more harm than good.
The differences may be related to beliefs about the cause of poverty. Republicans are much more likely to endorse an individualist explanation (e.g., people are poor because they are lazy), whereas Democrats are more likely to offer a structural explanation (e.g., it matters where in the class structure you begin and how we design the economic system).
Interestingly, answers to these questions vary much more by political affiliation than social class. Using data from the survey, I put together this table comparing the number of percentage points that separated the average answers to various questions. On the left is the difference by political party and, on the right, income (click to enlarge).
Clearly political affiliation drives opinions on the explanation for and right solutions to income inequality more so than income itself.
This is a great example of hegemony. A hegemonic ideology is one that is widely supported, even by people who are clearly disadvantaged by it. In this case, whatever you think of our economic system, it is pretty stunning that only there is only a six point gap between the percent of high income people saying it’s fair and the percent of low income people saying so. That’s the power of ideology — in this case, political affiliation — to shape our view of the world, even going so far as to influence people to believe in and perhaps vote for policies that are not in their best interest.
We’re celebrating the end of the year with our most popular posts from 2013, plus a few of our favorites tossed in. Enjoy!
Oddly, three high profile female musicians find themselves in a public debate about what it means to be a feminist. We can thank Miley Cyrus for the occasion. After claiming that the video for Wrecking Ball was inspired by Sinead O’Connor’s Nothing Compares to You, O’Connor wrote an open letter to the performer. No doubt informed by Cyrus’ performance at the VMAs, she argued that the music industry would inevitably exploit Cyrus’ body and leave her a shell of a human being. Amanda Palmer, another strong-minded female musician, responded to O’Connor. She countered with the idea that all efforts to control women’s choices, no matter how benevolent, were anti-feminist.
I keep receiving requests to add my two cents. So, here goes: I think they’re both right, but only half right. And, when you put the two sides together, the conclusion isn’t as simple as either of them makes it out to be. Both letters are kind, compelling, and smart, but neither capture the deep contradictions that Cyrus – indeed all women in the U.S. – face every day.
O’Connor warns Cyrus that the music industry is patriarchal and capitalist. In so many words, she explains that the capitalists will never pay Cyrus what she’s worth because doing so leaves nothing to skim off the top. The whole point is to exploit her. Meanwhile, her exploitation will be distinctly gendered because sexism is part of the very fabric of the industry. O’Connor writes:
The music business doesn’t give a shit about you, or any of us. They will prostitute you for all you are worth… and when you end up in rehab as a result of being prostituted, “they” will be sunning themselves on their yachts in Antigua, which they bought by selling your body…
Whether Cyrus ends up in rehab remains to be seen but O’Connor is, of course, right about the music industry. This is not something that requires argumentation, but is simply true in a patriarchal, capitalist society. For-profit industries are for profit. You may think that’s good or bad, but it is, by definition, about finding ways to extract money from goods and services and one does that by selling it for more than you paid for it. And media companies of all kinds are dominated at almost all levels by (rich, white) men. These are the facts.
Disagreeing, Palmer claims that O’Connor herself is contributing to an oppressive environment for women. All women’s choices, Palmer argues, should be considered fair game.
I want to live in a world where WE as women determine what we wear and look like and play the game as our fancy leads us, army pants one minute and killer gown the next, where WE decide whether or not we’re going to play games with the male gaze…
In Palmer’s utopia, no one gets to decide what’s best for women. The whole point is to have all options on the table, without censure, so women can pick and choose and change their mind as they so desire.
This is intuitively pleasing and seems to mesh pretty well with a decent definition of “freedom.” And women do have more choices – many, many more choices – than recent generations of women. They are now free to vote in elections, wear pants, smoke in public, have their own bank accounts, play sports, go into men’s occupations and, yes, be unabashedly sexual. Hell they can even run for President. And they get to still do all the feminine stuff too! Women have it pretty great right now and Palmer is right that we should defend these options.
So, both are making a feminist argument. What, then, is the source of the disagreement?
O’Connor and Palmer are using different levels of analysis. Palmer’s is straightforwardly individualistic: each individual woman should be able to choose what she wants to do. O’Connor’s is strongly institutional: we are all operating within a system – the music industry, in this case, or even “society” – and that system is powerfully deterministic.
The truth is that both are right and, because of that, neither sees the whole picture. On the one hand, women are making individual choices. They are not complete dupes of the system. They are architects of their own lives. On the other hand, those individual choices are being made within a system. The system sets up the pros and cons, the rewards and punishments, the paths to success and the pitfalls that lead to failure. No amount of wishing it were different will make it so. No individual choices change that reality.
So, Cyrus may indeed be “in charge of her own show,” as Palmer puts it. She may have chosen to be a “raging, naked, twerking sexpot” all of her own volition. But why? Because that’s what the system rewards. That’s not freedom, that’s a strategy.
In sociological terms, we call this a patriarchal bargain. Both men and women make them and they come in many different forms. Generally, however, they involve a choice to manipulate the system to one’s best advantage without challenging the system itself. This may maximize the benefits that accrue to any individual woman, but it harms women as a whole. Cyrus’ particular bargain – accepting the sexual objectification of women in exchange for money, fame, and power – is a common one. Serena Williams, Tila Tequila, Kim Kardashian, and Lady Gaga do it too.
We are all Miley, though. We all make patriarchal bargains, large and small. Housewives do when they support husbands’ careers on the agreement that he share the dividends. Many high-achieving women do when they go into masculinized occupations to reap the benefits, but don’t challenge the idea that occupations associated with men are of greater value. None of us have the moral high ground here.
So, is Miley Cyrus a pawn of industry patriarchs? No. Can her choices be fairly described as good for women? No.
That’s how power works. It makes it so that essentially all choices can be absorbed into and mobilized on behalf of the system. Fighting the system on behalf of the disadvantaged – in this case, women – requires individual sacrifices that are extraordinarily costly. In Cyrus’ case, perhaps being replaced by another artist who is willing to capitulate to patriarchy with more gusto. Accepting the rules of the system translates into individual gain, but doesn’t exactly make the world a better place. In Cyrus’ case, her success is also an affirmation that a woman’s worth is strongly correlated with her willingness to commodify her sexuality.
Americans want their stories to have happy endings. I’m sorry I don’t have a more optimistic read. If the way out of this conundrum were easy, we’d have fixed it already. But one thing’s for sure: it’s going to take collective sacrifice to bring about a world in which women’s humanity is so taken-for-granted that no individual woman’s choices can undermine it. To get there, we’re going to need to acknowledge the power of the system, recognize each other as conscious actors, and have empathy for the difficult choices we all make as we try to navigate a difficult world.
Since 1958, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has entertained kids with an annual Christmas-themed Santa-tracking program. Kids keep an eye on where in the world Santa is delivering his gifts and everyone thinks it’s jolly.
Well, not this year. Earlier this month we learned that Santa will be joined by two military fighter jets. Some objected to the new twist on the tradition, arguing that it militarized Santa, essentially brainwashing kids into romanticizing the ugly necessity of defense and the aggression of war.
Is it pro-U.S. military propaganda?
If it is, it’s nothing new. Ben Ostrowsky sent us this World War II-era propaganda poster. It was part of a series produced by the labor union and corporation-led War Production Board in 1942. The aim was to engage as many civilians and companies in weapon production as they could. ”Santa Claus has gone to War!” it exclaims. Maybe he needs those fighter jets along for the ride after all.
P.S. In case anyone is still debating: this proves not only that Santa Claus is white, but that he’s an American too. Team America!
In Pew Research Center data collected earlier this month, only 4% of respondents said that the thing they liked best about Christmas was the gift exchange. Only 1% said they most liked shopping or good deals and only 2% said it was the food. Instead, the majority (69%) said it was the family and friend time that they most appreciated, followed by religious reflection (11%), and general happiness and joy (7%). My pet suspicion, that people really like it for the vacation, came in at only 3%.
What do they like the least? Commercialism and materialism top the list (33%), the expense comes in second (22%), and shopping comes in third (10%).
There may be some response bias here — that’s when people say what they think the researcher wants to hear instead of the truth — but, if the data are good, it reveals why marketers have to try so damn hard every season to convince us that the gifts, decorations, and food are what make the holiday special. What would happen to spending if we all decided to do Christmas the way we wanted instead of the way it is in toy and jewelry commercials? There are lots of monied forces that don’t want us to find out.
Posted last year, but I love it, so here it is again!
In this fun four minute history of Santa Claus, CGP Gray explains how the character evolved, the role of Coca Cola, his conquest of the globe (i.e., Santa’s cultural imperialism), and the ongoing debates about where, exactly, he lives.