A few days ago I caught a television ad for Lean Cuisine that struck me as rather odd. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking of Lean Cuisine as having been positioned as the frozen meal for dieters – I mean, just look at the name, for crying out loud – but the ad was clearly trying to distance itself from that with its new tagline: “Ditch the Diet – Go on a 10-Day Try-It.” I checked out the site for Lean Cuisine and now the marketing is all about trying out the entrees – “packed with 13 grams of protein!” – and seeing “how great you’ll feel.”
Naturally, as soon as the commercial ended, I went on a rant. I’ll spare you a blow-by-blow recounting (which, as I recall, included the phrase “they have got to be fucking kidding” and several other variations on the F-bomb of Disbelief) and just summarize it for you. The problem with the new ad campaign is that the manufacturers of Lean Cuisine are trying to have it both ways, trying to promote what is ostensibly a “diet” product while moving away from the d-word.
Lean Cuisine isn’t the only brand to make a somewhat muddled attempt at employing an empowerment-based advertising tactic recently. Special K used to tout the Special K Challenge, where the consumer is promised that if they eat Special K products for breakfast and lunch and then follow that up with a regular dinner, they can “drop a jeans size in two weeks.” Now, though, they have campaigns to “shhhhut down fat talk” and they frame their products not in terms of weight loss but weight management. For a while, they also asked “What will you gain when you lose?” as a more positive way of reframing the weight-loss aims of their marketing.
Dove has also been another high-profile brands to adopt this dichotomous way of promoting their goods, with their “Real Beauty” ad campaign. Of course, the irony is that Dove is still trying to encourage women to embrace their natural beauty by purchasing and using their beauty products. (The Illusionists have a whole post focused on the ways in which Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign falls short, looking at everything from parent company Unilever’s wide range of product fails to the fact that the campaign ads are still retouched.)
The move toward more positive marketing seems to be contagious. Recently American Eagle grabbed headlines with their announcement that they would only use unretouched photos of models for their Aerie lingerie campaign. As Charlotte Alter at Time puts it, “After years of marketing outer beauty, it looks like inner beauty is the hot new thing.”
A lot of pixels have been spent talking about why this advertising is problematic, including on this blog, about which I am glad. Media literacy and a healthy dose of skepticism are essential for navigating our media-soaked culture without losing one’s mind. But rather than adding on to the already substantial body of criticism aimed at this style of advertising, I wanted to talk about it from another direction – specifically, what all of this new advertising says about us.
It’s been long known that advertisers have exploited feelings of shame and guilt to get us to buy their products. The blog Do I Offend? is dedicated to categorizing advertising’s long, horrible history of poking at everything from a lady’s body shape to her vadge odors (to be treated with Lysol? OMG!) in hopes of getting her to part with her hard-earned dollars so she can buy some crummy product aimed at fixing these made-up flaws. (For more on the checkered history of women-oriented advertising, check out this interview with the blog’s editor, Cynthia Petrovic, over at Bitch.)
Advertisers do it because it works. By appealing to very natural human desires to belong, to be desired sexually, to be able to care for your loved ones, to be admired and respected, they hit us in our proverbial soft, white underbellies in hopes of rendering us helpless against their entreaties.
The ever-increasing flood of this more positive advertising has me wondering if shame-and-guilt based advertising is starting to lose its effectiveness. After all, advertisers don’t just come up with multi-million dollar campaigns because they were suddenly seized with a crisis of conscience about their roles in the world. They work with artists, consumer psychologists and behavioral scientists, they do tons of research and spend a lot of money buying ad space and air time, and they spend a lot of time developing images and words that are intended to stimulate specific emotions and ideas in the audience. They wouldn’t just throw all of these resources at something if they didn’t have a lot of evidence that was going to work.
I don’t think that Dove would have made the leap to positive advertising had they not realized there was a thirst among women for that kind of marketing. And based on the fact that so many women loved the “Real Beauty” campaign when it first came out, they were right.
Balancing Jane made this point back in April:
Dove is pouring money into these campaigns because they think it will pay off in the long run, and they think it will pay off in the long run because they’ve heard us saying that we’re sick of being treated like mannequins for products instead of human beings with lives.
It was a calculated gamble and it’s one that has evidently worked quite well. So well, in fact, that more and more advertisers are adopting the same tactics. If it had just been Dove who had changed their way of conducting their advertising, I would be less inclined to use it to make any sort of wider judgment, but it’s not just Dove, and it’s not just beauty products or diet food. It’s Visa, featuring Sarah Hendrickson talking about women’s ski jumping in the Olympics. It’s Pantene, pointing out double standards in the workplace. It’s that Bing ad, with Malala Yousafzai and Gabrielle Giffords (and…Margaret Thatcher? Really?)
They are changing their tactics because WE have changed. We are more skeptical. We expect more. We demand more. We do not shy away from letting corporations know that we’re #NotBuyingIt. We are tired of hearing about how we need to lose weight, how we are old and ugly unless we spackle our faces, how our lives will suck and we will die alone and unloved, our bodies chewed to pieces by the packs of cats we are sure to have left behind. We are sick of it, and advertisers hear that and they are responding accordingly.
The message is clear: women’s empowerment sells.
This isn’t to say that I think we should suddenly cease all skepticism aimed at advertising because they acknowledge that maybe it’s not a good idea to treat their target market with disdain and scorn. After all, advertisers have only changed their tactics. Their strategy – to get us to buy their products – remains the same. The ads are still aimed at our vulnerable spots; they’re just different ones this time around. Further I would argue that skepticism and media literacy becomes even more critical when the politics of liberation – in this case, feminism and body acceptance – are employed in the service of capitalism, mainly because advertising has a way of defanging and depoliticizing these potent social movements in the process of turning them into warm, fuzzy, buy-stuff feelings. Just see what happened earlier this week with Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
All that said, I do see this advertising and I find it heartening, to use Balancing Jane’s word, because I know that what’s behind all of it is a genuine change in the way we women are thinking about ourselves and our place in the world. I might be rolling my eyes at the ads, but I’m also smiling a little bit too.