Beauty and the (Media) Beast

The more we make excuses for 'aspirational' or artificial constructs of beauty, the more we will experience an unbalanced society wrought with neurotic, unsatisfied women.
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We've all heard that 'sex sells,' but we rarely think twice about it. In fact, it's one tired cliché we've actually grown up believing. Unfortunately, for marketers and consumers worldwide...
We've been lied to.

And while there's no denying that Britney Spears sold records in great part due to eroticized expressions of virginity, research has shown that the higher sex content in an advertisement, the lower the brand name recall. In fact, a study conducted by Steadman found that brand-name recall was significantly lower in sexual advertisements than non-sexual advertisements. Still, we continue to tell our clients and our kids that same played out line.

The real question is this: what does this mean when it comes to perceptions of beauty and the body for women and men today?

In 2004, with the help of Ogilvy, Dove launched its famous 'Campaign for Real Beauty' after conducting a global study of beauty. The study confirmed that the definition of beauty had become impossible to attain. Dove found that only 2 % of women described themselves as beautiful and, when it came to body image and weight, women from all countries were unsatisfied with themselves. However, an overwhelming 81% strongly agreed that "the media and advertising set an unrealistic standard of beauty that most women can't ever achieve" and 75 % wish the media did a better job portraying the diversity of women's physical attractiveness, including size, shape, and age. With women making up roughly 50% of the world's population and influencing or buying 80% of products sold, companies ignoring what these women say and feel can be a costly mistake.
Dove's response was to develop "Evolution," a viral video with unprecedented success; viewed by more than 300 million people globally. Dove and Ogilvy won countless awards, including two Grand Prix Cannes Advertising Awards and a Grand EFFIE, which honors the most significant achievement in marketing communications. In the first six months of the campaign, sales of Dove's firming products increased 700% in Europe and the United States. In the first year, global sales surpassed $1 billion.

Shortly thereafter, Spain made headlines for banning super-thin models from runways after the deaths of 21-year-old Ana Carolina Reston and 22-year-old Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos, who reportedly died of heart failure after stepping off a runway during Montevideo's Fashion Week. The ban demanded models have a BMI above 18 to participate in shows. Soon, talk spread to other nations. Italy, India, Israel, and Canada proudly followed suit. Ordinarily, this might indicate an improvement; however, seven years after the Dove campaign, models in all the popular magazines have continued to get thinner and the US, UK, and France still haven't accepted a ban on undernourished models. Just last week, models walking on runways in both London and New York Fashion Week looked on the verge of collapse and guests were so horrified that many could be heard whispering about the ribs displayed, not the rags.

As the website,, points out, "We need to remind ourselves and each other constantly (especially children) that these images are fake." The average female model is estimated to be 5' 9" tall and 110 lbs., resulting in a BMI (height to weight ratio) of just 16 (below 18.5 is considered underweight), according to The Evening Standard. Furthermore, photos are heavily photoshopped before going to print. Thus, these images are not only abnormal, but they're also unattainable and 'the result of these images on society makes us believe they should be.'

In addition to these manifestations of beauty and body, as Media Awareness in Canada also discovered, "The most cursory examination of media confirms that young girls are being bombarded with images of sexuality... those who continue to consume media images are strongly influenced 'by stereotypical images of uniformly beautiful, obsessively thin and scantily dressed objects of male desire. And studies show that girls who are frequent viewers have the most negative opinion of their gender.'"

But men, in case you think this isn't a problem for you... since 1967, male mannequins have gradually decreased in size by roughly seven inches in the chest and five inches in the waist. Manorexia is on the rise with over 1 million men and boys suffering daily. The amount of bare-chested six-pack wielding men in advertising has increased tenfold. Over fifteen years ago, Kolbe and Albanese (1996) examined male images from 1993 issues of Business Week, Esquire, GQ, Playboy, Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated and found that, overall, male images in the magazines were not depictions of ordinary, average men. Today, men, too, are being pushed to starve themselves to fit into skinny jeans and, if we don't put a halt to this alarming trend, we will see more boys and girls with high levels of physical insecurity and eating disorders.

In short, this affects us all.

With this in mind, when marketing products and services to women, here are three key factors to keep in mind.

1. Do not ignore what women are saying in the research.

Women want to see women who reflect what women in society look like. Period. The more we continue to ignore this one simple truth or make excuses for 'aspirational' or artificial constructs of beauty, the more we will experience an unbalanced society wrought with neurotic, unsatisfied women and equally neurotic, frustrated men. These representations speak to something uneasy within us -- something far too detached from the beauty of our own soul's purpose. And, although marketers can't solve every man or woman's insecurities, as individuals who trade in semiotics, we play an enormously large role in crafting the solutions.

2. Treating women as a category entirely different than men is a recipe for mediocrity.

I've never dated a man who watches sports. Millions of men do, but there are millions who would rather get a pedicure (and, yes, they're straight). So, if you're going to always put women in advertisements for cleaning products you're simply perpetuating behavior that, at least in my family, isn't always accurate. Look to Sweden. They listened to the research on gender and media. Subsequently, they developed several Ombudsman programs, Reklamombudsmannen and the Trades Ethical Council against Sexism in Advertising; each with the explicit purpose of eliminating stereotypical gender-specific behavior in advertisements because they recognize that it reinforces inequality. In Sweden, you will see both men and women in advertisements for cleaning products. As a result of this bold forward-thinking, their society reflects the equality, stability, and happiness that so many nations aspire to possess.

3. If you want market to healthy women then show us healthy women.

I've heard countless men complain about 'women with daddy issues' or 'crazy ex-girlfriends.' I've heard women called 'insecure' and 'clingy'.

Perhaps, it's high time we ask ourselves why these traits appear to be endemic to women reared in certain societies, but not others. Parents can only do so much when children are bombarded -- from the time they're toddlers -- with thousands of images of robotic models sucking on water bottles or Carmen Electra in a bikini on all fours. Perhaps, we ought to look at how complicit we are in the formation of these identities by creating advertisements where young girls are sexualized and models don't look like anyone we've ever seen in real life. Perhaps, we ought to learn from Dove's research and do something proactive to change these alarming trends.

Instead of creating an atmosphere of difference between the genders, let us foster the similarities between them.

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