Last summer, I was sent a message from a complete stranger through OkCupid, asking if I would like to meet him for a no-strings attached snog*. The message went like this:
You know when you’re sitting on the tube, on a bus, or even at your desk at work and someone walks past and you think: god damn, I wish I could just snog them right now. I mean, it happens on the screen all the time doesn’t it? People are always just randomly snogging strangers in the street and then walking off.
And I got to thinking, that looks like fun. But I don’t think I’m brave enough to actually ask anyone for a snog in the street in real life. And probably asking ruins it, anyway – in the adverts they just *know* that a snog’s about to happen, don’t they?
So I was wondering: would you like to meet me for a no strings attached snog? The way I see it, a day with a snog in it is almost always better than a day without. And snogs are good wholesome fun – no mess in your head or your bed.
We could choose a bridge in London and each walk from the opposite side to meet in the middle at an arranged time. Then we’d smile at each other, say hello, check that there’s some physical attraction (you sort of instantly know, don’t you? If there’s nothing, we can just turn around) and then have a snog.
Then just walk away again, like in a diet coke ad or something – have some fun and make a fantasy a reality? Don’t tell me you’ve never thought about kissing a perfect stranger…
Being a sociologist, and obsessively interested in relationships and sexuality, (and, partly, a hot-blooded woman) I couldn’t resist the opportunity to be part of snoggy a social experiment. Already it raised questions in my head about the nature of online dating, romance, and gender norms. Would it be perpetuating romantic ideals to do something ‘just like a Diet Coke advert‘? Was saying ‘yes’ to him asking for a kiss an act of consent? It felt like it might just be replicating typical gender norms (man asks woman for a kiss, how very Jane Austen…) Or maybe it could be empowering and agentic to admit that I we want to kiss a perfect stranger. more...
One way that capitalism creates consumers is by convincing us that our identity is developed and demonstrated through the items we purchase. Your new clothes, shoes, house, car, and jewelry tell the world who you are and what you are worth. Most importantly, these products can fix our flaws (which, we are told, are many). With each new purchase, we think we are improving ourselves. But if we ever felt complete, fixed, perfect, we might stop buying, so capitalists must continue to create new problems in need of solutions (Gwen Sharp has a great, related post at SocImages).
The body has long been a site of capitalist pathologization. We are taught that our bodies, often women’s bodies, require manipulation or control, and that medicines and hygiene products are our best options. This is readily evident in a recent ad campaign for Secret’s “stress sweat” line (view here). According to Secret, all sweating is embarrassing; it is a problem requiring a solution. It is especially embarrassing for girls and women, Secret’s target consumer base. The site links to WebMD, where girls can rate their symptoms to determine whether their sweat is “abnormal,” and ultimately, how mortified they ought to be when sweat happens. But stress sweat is the worst smelling sweat of all, Secret tells us. According to their website, there is a scientific explanation for its extremely foul odor: it emerges from different glands than exercise/activity induced sweat, with different bacteria to cause more odors (you can watch a “cute” video on the “science” of stress sweat, produced by Secret’s parent company, Proctor & Gamble, here). In stressful situations, girls and women are told, “Don’t focus on your speech/date/test/presentation/etc. Worry about your armpits and B.O.” Thanks a lot, Secret.
So, Secret begins by telling us that we have a problem—we are stinky, wet beasts. We must buy Secret deodorant/antiperspirant and keep our natural scent “secret.” According to their site, a sweaty daughter “may isolate herself, avoiding activities she previously enjoyed, in an effort to prevent embarrassment and teasing, so it’s really important to give her emotional support.” Rather than encouraging your daughter to find self-confidence internally, mothers are told that the best course of action is to take her shopping. Secret goes further; not only will the new deodorant give her confidence, it will allow her to express her true self: “With 10 unique scents to choose from, she’ll have fun picking the sparkly one that fits her personality.”
So we see that Secret uses the tried-and-true capitalist tactic of selling insecurity; but is this gendered? Secret is a producer of products for women. They wrap their deodorants in pastel pinks and purples, fill them with flowery or fruity scents and name them Ohlala Lavender and Cocoa Butter Kiss. Secret teaches women that their natural smells and bodily processes are so gross that they require the daily application of carcinogenic chemicals (see also Lisa Wade’s post on similar issues with douching). Part of what makes the new Secret campaign so insidious, in my opinion, is that it masquerades as empowerment. For example, one variety of Secret Clinical Strength deodorant is called “Mean Stinks”—when consumers purchase this deodorant stick, Secret donates a bit of money to organizations fighting girl-on-girl bullying. And yet, the ads themselves encourage girls to compete with and compare themselves to one another. A teen girl is now pushed to ask herself, “Do I smell worse than her? What about her?” This particular line of products pressures women to conform to the social expectation that women be soft, pretty, sweet-smelling creatures regardless of activity or context—we’re supposed to glow, remember? Even female athletes are encouraged to worry about sweating during practices and games but don’t worry, their cure is Secret’s Clinical Strength Sport stick. (One could also look at the gendered pressures conveyed in deodorant/hygiene ads for men. My guess is you’d find a lot of normative expectations about heterosexuality and muscularity.)
As I finish writing this post, I feel I must admit something—I’m sweating. It’s a bit humid in here, the AC could be on higher, I could have chosen an iced coffee. And as I read about “normal” vs. “abnormal” sweating, a small part of my mind whispers, “Is my sweating normal? Can everyone tell?” None of us is exempt from the pressure. But neither are we powerless.
In the past month, I have posted about the feminization of the Gardasil, the vaccine that prevents 70% of Human Papillomavirus (HPV)-related cervical cancers and 90% of genital warts. I started with the historical development and approval of the vaccine and continued with an examination of the research guiding girls-only vaccination strategies. In this post, I will conclude my discussion of Gardasil with some observations about the marketing and advertising of the vaccine, the continued focus on girls and women (despite approval for boys and men), and the messages aimed at women through these advertisements.
A number of researchers suggest that the marketing and advertising of Gardasil has been aimed at girls and women. The “One Less” campaign from the makers of Gardasil originally asked parents (well, really mothers) to help their daughters protect themselves against cervical cancer; their daughters would be “one less” to be affected by this disease. The makers of Gardasil now reach out the parents of sons, too, telling them they can help prevent HPV diseases in their sons. Still, scholars suggest that the marketing of Gardasil remains mostly targeted at girls and women. My own google image search confirms these findings. Of the first twenty one photos that appear using the search terms, “gardasil ads,” only two include or reference boys and men.
What I found most interesting about my own google image search was not the lack of advertising for boys and men. Clearly, the makers of Gardasil believe that girls and women are their target demographic and thus aim their advertising accordingly. Instead, I think the strategies and messages in the advertising aimed at girls and women are the more interesting observation.
There were two different types of ads that appeared in my search. The first type of ad focused around the protection of young girls. The makers of Gardasil imply that being a good parent means vaccinating your daughter and therefore protecting her from cervical cancer (an observation also made by Sociological Images). For example, one advertisement read, “How do you help your daughter become one less life affected by cervical cancer?” Another advertisement had a similar sentiment, stating “Your daughter can’t possibly know the importance of the cervical cancer vaccine, but thankfully, she has her mother.” This narrative of protectionism is not surprising. In other contexts, like sex education debates, the discourse about adolescent sexuality, and in particular, girls’ sexuality, reveals a desire to protect their “innocence.”
The other type of ad moves away from the narrative of protectionism and focuses on empowerment and choice. One ad stated, “I chose to get vaccinated after my doctor to me the facts” (emphasis in original). Another ad read, “I chose to get vaccinated because my dreams don’t include cervical cancer.” Instead of focusing on the ways in which girls and women can be protected, the ads suggest that girls and women need to protect themselves. It seems like the advertising department at Merck (the makers of Gardasil) recognize that they needed another strategy if they wanted to appeal to young women who feel empowered about their sex lives.
These two strategies are opposed to one another. One strategy suggests that girls and women need to be protected, while the other strategy relies on the ability of girls and women to be active and educated decision makers. Merck is tapping into two gendered narratives in order to sell to as many people as possible. This is, of course, the way that advertising works. But it does reveal the different, and sometimes contradictory, cultural ideas about women’s sexuality, ideas that advertisers will draw on in order to make a profit.
Habel, Melissa A., Nicole Liddon, and Jo E. Stryker. 2009. “The HPV Vaccine: A Content Analysis of Online News Stories.” Journal of Women’s Health 18(3): 401-407.
Lorber, Judith. 1997. Gender and the Social Construction of Illness. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
As box office numbers for Christoher Nolan’s Inception continue to rise – right now, Variety reports that the film has grossed $6M ($149M total) – so do the number of individuals that are confronted with the question: What if someone could control my thoughts through my dreams? Inception successfully conceptualizes this ability; Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his team of “experts” use unexplained technology to enter dreams and plant “ideas” into the subconscious that will, according to their logic, eventually seep into an individual’s consciousness. By entering through the subconscious mind, covert operations (including being paid to implant an otherwise controversial idea) are carried out undetected. But what if you didn’t even need to enter the subconscious to implant an idea? What if you could manufacture a desire and send it straight to an individual’s consciousness? While audiences have been pondering the radical notion that ideas can be planted into an individual’s subconscious state, they may not realize that “inception” via consciousness has been occurring since the day they were born. Yes, you guessed it: Advertising.
According to Jean Kilbourne (1999),”The fact is that much of advertising’s power comes from this belief that advertising does not affect us. The most effective kind of propaganda is that which is not recognized as propaganda. Because we think advertising is silly and trivial, we are less on guard, less critical, than we might otherwise be. It’s all in fun, it’s ridiculous. While we’re laughing, sometimes sneering, the commercial does its work” (Can’t Buy My Love, p.27). Beyond the notion that advertising turns audiences into commodities (see Dallas Smythe) is the unsettling reality that advertising can successfully plant the idea that we “need” a material object (beauty products, Mac products, etc.). Advertising, as an arm of the Consciousness Industry, appeals to our emotions, and at its most successful, has the ability to alter priorities and rationality. However, as Kilbourne notes, advertising’s genius is that it operates in the form of an effective cultural backdrop; its omnipresence is desensitizing. So, while Inception is a mental exercise in the possibility of subconscious manipulation, advertising is the actual practice (yet not always successful) of manipulating our conscious desires. In the end, entering an individual’s dream seems like a lot of work when all one has to do is construct a seductive message and deliver it to trained and willing participants.
“Advertising” from The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology
Many lecturers and teachers will recognise the feeling of disheartenment when confronted by an undergraduate essay containing multiple references to Wikipedia. Despite regular exhortations for students to resist its charms, its appeal seems almost overwhelming. Although the site is loved by many, its major selling point of completely open access (i.e. ‘anyone can contribute to or edit’ its entries) is precisely why academics shake their heads in frustration.
However, in a recent interview with Emma Barnett of The Telegraph, Jimmy Wales (co-founder) appears to suggest that things are about to change at Wikipedia. Most noticeable is the creation of new measures, described as “flagged revisions”. In essence, this will mean that all new submissions and edited content, which relate to a living person, will have to be authenticated by one of Wikipedia’s editors, prior to online publication. Despite criticism that the whole ethos of the Wikipedia site will be degraded by the introduction of pre-publication censorship, Wales is convinced that this is the way forward. He points to a slowing of growth amongst new articles on the English version, suggesting that contributors are now concentrating on ensuring the articles already available are accurate, rather than simply adding more and more new material.
Whether the promise of ‘an increasing focus on quality and referencing’ will be able to sway the academic community, remains to be seen. However, the sheer volume of information and the speed with which it is checked and uploaded, makes it unlikely that Wikipedia is anywhere near reaching the stringent standards required for academia and education.
It’s been over seven years since Naomi Klein published No Logo, which explored the backlash against large multinational corporations. Brand identities such as Nike became increasingly associated with sweatshops instead of what the company wanted everyone to feel when they saw the ever-present “swoosh” logo. Wal-Mart became associated with union busting instead of low prices. Can this phenomenon explain why Starbucks recently “re-branded” one of their Seattle coffee shops with no brand at all?
This move is most likely not caused by bad publicity. Instead, it is another attempt to increase profits through emotional manipulation and paying close attention to cultural meanings. “15th Avenue Coffee and Tea” as the new store is known as attempts to evoke the feeling of an independently-owned neighborhood coffee shop, ironically just the type that has become somewhat of a rarity because of being driven out of business by Starbucks itself. They also sell beer, wine, and food items not normally found at the corporate chain.
Simple advertising and promotion has been gradually pushed out of the consumer picture by branding, which involves imbuing the product with a certain meaning with which people identify. Will this move work for Starbucks? HarvardBusiness.org says no, saying the concept is “fundamentally dishonest” and that “because there’s no way a corporate coffee chain can create an authentic neighborhood coffeehouse experience. Your favorite local coffeehouse is the product of someone’s passion, dedication, and probable borderline craziness.” Such attempts at emotional branding may prove to be their own worst enemy, as people grow ever more cynical at corporate attempts to sell back to them what they have themselves taken away.
Branding Consultants as Cultural Intermediaries by Liz Moor
In an effort to put airbrushing on the legislative agenda, MP Jo Swinson and the Lib Dems in the United Kingdom have put a proposal together that would make feminist media scholars jump for joy: ban airbrushed ads aimed at those under sixteen and clearly indicate airbrushed ads aimed at adults. Swinson was quoted as saying, “Today’s unrealistic idea of what is beautiful means that young girls are under more pressure not than they were even five years ago. Airbrushing means that adverts contain completely unattainable images that no-one can live up to in real life.” She also noted that the “focus on women’s appearance has gotten out of hand.” While these conclusions are seemingly correct, and holding the manipulations of airbrushing, including Photoshop, accountable for the circulation of hegemonic femininity appears to be a step in the right direction – how can this really play out? Is this too idealistic?
For media studies, this would represent the bridge between scholarship and practice that most academics spend their lives hoping to accomplish. The endless studies on body image, marketing to children, gender and identity construction, and a host of others, would be lifted out of the ivory tower and placed on the social agenda. Unfortunately, though, there are reasons that these changes have not happened sooner. more...
A U.S. Federal Appeals court recently upheld a 2006 landmark ruling that found top tobacco companies guilty of racketeering and fraud. The companies were found to have deceived the public about the dangers of smoking by using misleading labels such as “low tar”, “light”, and “mild”, on cigarette boxes. Manufacturers have since been required to change the way they market their cigarettes.
The mass perception of smoking has gradually evolved from social acceptance to socially and morally unacceptable. This moral imperative serves to act as a regulatory function in society, for example in controlling public spaces. Governments have responded to changes in societal values through legislation, such as banning smoking in virtually all buildings in some US states and Canadian provinces.
Although societies have made many gains in reducing the amount of tobacco users and thus contributing to healthier citizens and environments, we fail to consider what Marie-Rachelle Narcisse et al. call the social patterning of smoking practices. They note that although tobacco consumption has declined over the past 20 years, new emerging patterns of smoking practices have emerged subsequently. It is of utmost importance to consider the multifaceted links with socioeconomic inequalities and gender-specific smoking patterns. In further understanding these patterns, I continue to question whether smoking is simply an individual bad habit or a consequence of socially patterned inequalities. If it is primarily the latter, we need to begin considering addressing the issue in other ways than simply changing advertising requirements.
Less Credit/Less Consumption Consumption is down. While this might be a momentary hiccup, it could very well be the case that Western societies will have to “reset” and pull back on consumption levels for a long time to come. Much of the consumption literature has pointed to Western conspicuous and hyper-consumption as an integral ethic of modern society. We have been consuming well beyond our means by relying on debt to fuel our consumer economy, an unsustainable habit as credit markets have dried up. So what does it mean to pull back on consumerism, something, arguably, so central to our society? Does this leave a void? If so, what fills this void?
A Civic-Centered Spectacle?
One void that seems appropriate to discuss is that of the spectacle. The (increasingly distant) era of hyper-consumption was a time of the consumer spectacle (e.g., mega-malls, Las Vegas, etc), and when consumption is down we might expect to see different sorts of spectacles. Spectacles built around more modest, live-within-your-means activities. The green movement is, arguably, a spectacle in this way. Perhaps a more vivid example is the Obama campaign, inauguration, and early-presidency. Truly a spectacle. Has civic engagement, to some degree, replaced consumption in the realm of a shared ethos (as Benjamin Barber hopes)? Additionally, has civic engagement, to some degree, replaced corporate consumption as the site of the spectacle?
The Commodification of Everything
Of course, the picture may be less rosey than this. Corporate commodification and it’s hold on the Western spirit of consumption (as well as it’s near-monopoly of the spectacle) will not fall easily. In addition to generating their own spectacles, we might also see in this economic and consumptive downturn corporations commodify the very non- or anti-commercial spectacles mentioned previously (i.e., the green movement and Obama-style civic engagement). We are seeing corporations use the green movement to sell products -to the extent that some are questioning the greenness of the movement in the first place. On the Obama front, and this was very apparent on Inauguration Day in DC, Pepsi, Ikea and others have commodified the idea of Obama’s campaign. In the hyperlinks to the Pepsi and Ikea campaigns, as well as with the pictures above, we see that they are not just using his image or name to sell their products, but the very ethos of the campaign, such as “hope” or “change” (in the image above, note Pepsi’s word choice, font and even logo redesign). In this way, while Obama might represent a turn away from consumption towards civic engagement (he called for this, at least) and a turn away from consumer products as the site of the spectacle, this spectacle is still brought into the realm of the corporate. In an economy where branding is still important, ‘hope’ is ultimately used to sell soda. ~nathan
Outlines of a Critical Sociology of Consumption: Beyond Moralism and Celebration
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Sociology Lens aims to offer a lively and informative venue for faculty, graduate students and the wider public to discuss current issues in sociology. The site is a companion to the online review journal, Sociology Compass.