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Sexism, discrimination and stereotyping




“Advertising has an “agenda setting function” which is the ability, with huge sums of money, to put consumption as the only item on the agenda. In the battle for a share of the public conscience this amounts to non-treatment (ignorance) of whatever is not commercial and whatever is not advertised for.

With increasing force advertising makes itself comfortable in the private sphere so that the voice of commerce becomes the dominant way of expression in society.” Advertising critics see advertising as the leading light in our culture. Sut Jhally and James Twitchell go beyond considering advertising as kind of religion and that advertising even replaces religion as a key institution.

"Corporate advertising (or commercial media) is the largest single psychological project ever undertaken by the human race. Yet for all of that, its impact on us remains unknown and largely ignored. When I think of the media’s influence over years, over decades, I think of those brainwashing experiments conducted by Dr. Ewen Cameron in a Montreal psychiatric hospital in the 1950s (see MKULTRA). The idea of the CIA-sponsored "depatterning" experiments was to outfit conscious, unconscious or semiconscious subjects with headphones, and flood their brains with thousands of repetitive "driving" messages that would alter their behaviour over time….Advertising aims to do the same thing."

Advertising is especially aimed at young people and children and it increasingly reduces young people to consumers. For Sut Jhally it is not “surprising that something this central and with so much being expended on it should become an important presence in social life. Indeed, commercial interests intent on maximizing the consumption of the immense collection of commodities have colonized more and more of the spaces of our culture. For instance, almost the entire media system (television and print) has been developed as a delivery system for marketers, and its prime function is to produce audiences for sale to advertisers. Both the advertisements it carries and the editorial matter that acts as a support for it celebrate the consumer society. The movie system, at one time outside the direct influence of the broader marketing system, is now fully integrated into it through the strategies of licensing, tie-ins and product placements. The prime function of many Hollywood films today is to aid in the selling of the immense collection of commodities. As public funds are drained from the non-commercial cultural sector, art galleries, museums and symphonies bid for corporate sponsorship.” In the same way effected is the education system and advertising is increasingly penetrating schools and universities. Cities, such as New York, accept sponsors for public playgrounds. “Even the pope has been commercialized … The pope’s 4-day visit to Mexico in …1999 was sponsored by Frito-Lay and PepsiCo. The industry is accused of being one of the engines powering a convoluted economic mass production system which promotes consumption. As far as social effects are concerned it does not matter whether advertising fuels consumption but which values, patterns of behaviour and assignments of meaning it propagates. Advertising is accused of hijacking the language and means of pop culture, of protest movements and even of subversive criticism and does not shy away from scandalizing and breaking taboos (e.g. Benneton). This in turn incites counter action, what Kalle Lasn in 2001 called ‘’Jamming the Jam of the Jammers’’. Anything goes. “It is a central social-scientific question what people can be made to do by suitable design of conditions and of great practical importance. For example, from a great number of experimental psychological experiments it can be assumed, that people can be made to do anything they are capable of, when the according social condition can be created.”

Advertising often uses stereotype gender specific roles of men and women reinforcing existing clichés and it has been criticized as “inadvertently or even intentionally promoting sexism, racism, heterosexualism, ableism, ageism, et cetera… At very least, advertising often reinforces stereotypes by drawing on recognizable "types" in order to tell stories in a single image or 30 second time frame.” Activities are depicted as typical male or female (stereotyping). In addition, people are reduced to their sexuality or equated with commodities and gender specific qualities are exaggerated. Sexualized female bodies, but increasingly also males, serve as eye-catchers.

In advertising, it is usually a woman that is depicted as

  • a servant of men and children that reacts to the demands and complaints of her loved ones with a bad conscience and the promise for immediate improvement (wash, food)
  • a sexual or emotional play toy for the self-affirmation of men
  • a technically totally clueless being that can only manage a childproof operation
  • female expert, but stereotype from the fields of fashion, cosmetics, food or at the most, medicine
  • as ultra thin
  • doing ground-work for others, e.g. serving coffee while a journalist interviews a politician

A large portion of advertising deals with the promotion of products in a way that defines an "ideal" body image. This objectification greatly affects women; however, men are also affected. Women and men in advertising are frequently portrayed in unrealistic and distorted images that set a standard for what is considered "beautiful," "attractive" or "desirable." Such imagery does not allow for what is found to be beautiful in various cultures or to the individual. It is exclusionary, rather than inclusive, and consequently, these advertisements promote a negative message about body image to the average person. Because of this form of media, girls, boys, women and men may feel under high pressure to maintain an unrealistic and often unhealthy body weight or even to alter their physical appearance cosmetically or surgically in minor to drastic ways.

The EU parliament passed a resolution in 2008 that advertising may not be discriminating and degrading. This shows that politicians are increasingly concerned about the negative impacts of advertising. However, the benefits of promoting overall health and fitness are often overlooked. Men are also negatively portrayed as incompetent and the butt of every joke in advertising.





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