Walk through any city today and count the number of billboards using the female body as a sales pitch. You will soon lose count and, especially if you are a woman, feel offended and angry at the way women’s dignity is being trampled on. The Buffalo Clothing Company’s hit a new low with its latest billboard: A woman wearing nothing more than a backpack and high heels.
The whole field of marketing is crying out for a new approach. The prevalence of in-your-face female images has reached saturation point, says Harvard researcher Paloma Diaz Soloaga. In a study she did for her PhD in Marketing and Public Relations, Soloaga found that there are typically five different representations of women in fashion magazines:
· Object Woman shows strong self-esteem and ego, promising seduction and pleasure. She never seems tired, wrinkled or weak. Usually she appears in night environments.
· Doll Woman projects sadness, tiredness, weakness. Most of the time she appears in a self-regarding attitude. Invariably she sends the message that a woman’s body has merely aesthetic value.
· Sensual Woman is beautiful but without too many expectations. She is not aggressive in her attitude but is associated with pleasure and seduction.
· Mimic Woman is an active and socially intense woman. Her usual setting is luxurious and she can be classified as “high society”.
· Traditional Woman is perfectly beautiful, but is closer to the authentic woman. She is associated with family, modernity and friendship. She is never overtly sexual, but frequently appears in leisure environments and activities.
Although there is a greater usage of the first four types throughout the advertising industry, says Soloaga, there is a slightly increasing tendency to use the fifth type. She predicts that some smart forerunners will exploit this opportunity to gain an edge on their competition by promoting the real deal.
But there are more than market forces at work here. In 1995 the United Nations Conference on Women held in Beijing adopted a Platform for Action which identified “the rapidly expanding media and mass communication industry as ‘a critical area for concern’, and one which must be urgently tackled if we are to move forward in achieving gender equality.” Whatever you think of “gender equality”, it can be useful to have a big gun like the UN hassling governments.
That is one inference we can draw from a conference organised by the European Union in May and entitled, “Women’s Image In Publicity”. The purpose of the conference was to come up with strategies and concrete actions for breaking down the stereotypes of women. The image of an everyday woman — who eats, laughs, is a wife, a professional and a mother — is more than just an opportunity for the creative sector. It is also a social demand.
Already, in 1998, the UK Advertising Standards Authority published results of a study that showed 71 per cent of people felt offended by advertisements portraying women as sex objects. Also, 65 per cent were unhappy with the way women are always portrayed as slim and stereotypically attractive.
In 2003, something similar occurred in Milan, the world’s fashion capital. A company called Moda e Modi in collaboration with the Universita’ del Sacro Cuore conducted a study through interviews with professionals and consumers of the creative arts. The clear message from these people was that beautiful models with long and sad faces did not represent them. As one woman explained: “What bothers me the most is how models always look serious. They look as though they were angry or sad. Therefore they do not give an image of what a woman their age is really like, even though they are wearing a beautiful dress.” And another opinion: “I would like to see normal advertisements. I think these are the ones that should predominate — illustrating normality. We are being used, represented in an exaggerated manner. It’s obvious we cannot go out in the streets looking like the models do in advertisement.”
Interestingly enough, similar attitudes are showing up on the catwalks. Take, for example, the international repercussions of the new city regulations in Cibeles (Madrid). Any model who does not reach a healthy body mass index (say 56 kg for a height of 1.75 meters) will not be allowed to walk the runway. This benchmark has been set by the Spanish Society of Endocrinology and Nutrition. They are not solely worried about the models’ health. They also take into account the ripple effect to countless number of teenagers who are dazzled by the supposed beauty of these models that in some cases anyway is only skin deep.
The catwalk-plus-health thematic has spread like wildfire through the international press, alerting the public to the new standard and creating expectations. Advertising agencies and designers are taking the hint and coming out with new fashion concepts based on wholeness and naturalness.
Take, for example, the Spanish fashion brand Jocomomola and their slogan, “Eat very healthy.” It turns out they are actually concerned about dangerous behaviour that could lead to health issues such as anorexia and bulimia. This kind of motivation has been emerging right across the fashion industry. Creativity is rediscovering its connection with integrity, with respect for the body and the person.
The fashion designer Elena Mirò uses models with a 46 figure size, which is a far cry from the sterotypical slim figure. And yet they are charming and beautiful. Moreover they represent a size many medium-height women use to dress themselves from day to day.
Again, in Italy, the brand Caractère ran an advertising campaign last winter, where the main character was a distinguished and real woman. In the picture, she wears the same jacket for completely different situations: to catch a cab, ride her bicycle, at work, going to the supermarket and, later on, out for the night.
Advertising adds a magic dust to the product or the service it is selling. It represents a world of daydreams that allows consumers to imagine an ideal self. But what real woman wants to look like the Photoshopped beauty with a sulky mouth and hollow eyes?
The woman who dresses herself to go to work, to go out with her friends or to spend time with her family — this woman is a goldmine waiting for the marketers to open their eyes. The real magic dust in advertising would be to present a woman who is fashionable in the natural, everyday world.
Adela Lo Celso and Alegria Duran Ballen are freelance journalists working in Rome.