Thursday, May 7, 2009

Nudity, Normativity and Advertising

This blog culminated in this paper:

From sex to birth, bathing to changing clothes, nudity is an inescapable human experience. Even more, in the United States we are inundated by advertisements with sexual content, depicting nude models to sell everything from phones to chairs. And if there’s not outright nudity, there’s always the possibility of nudity (denoted in women by revealing clothing). Advertising’s mantra “sex sells” is practiced whole-heartedly. But as prevalent as nudity is in advertising, it lacks any meaningful diversity. Looking at advertisements makes it clear that not just anyone can show up at a photo shoot and strip down to nothing. There are rules for who can join and how, which happen to be very divided along gender lines.

Advertising’s number one platitude is the overrepresentation of women. To predict that women appear nude more often in advertising, then, would be very reasonable. In truth, women are 3.7 times more likely to be “suggestively dressed, partially clad, or nude” (Reichert 408). But are these just any women? Of course not. Even a cursory glance at American advertising reveals what bodies are acceptable to use nude: thin, white (or light), young, long legged, cisgendered, nondisabled, etc women.

Interestingly, these images, not so subtly aimed at heterosexual men, are more prevalent in magazines targeted at women (Reichert 409). And even more interesting is the research on the appeal of nudes and erotic imagery that has found that men responded better to female nudes in advertising, while women tended not only to favor demure and semi-nude ads and full female nudity caused a greater tension in women than in men (LaTour and Henthorne 28).

Why is this? To find out, it is useful to look at research on how men and women perceive nude bodies. Beth Eck performed a small study in which she interviewed males and females about their reactions to male and female nudes. In this research she found that the men and women she spoke with were much more comfortable looking at photographs of nude women than men (698-702). What’s more, while both men tended to view photographs of women as “objects of pleasure or derision” (697), men do so by exerting their heterosexuality and masculinity through their perceived right to judge the female models and women do this by using the models to reflect on their own bodies (697).

This account sheds some light on why ads employing female nudes, though reportedly less appealing to women than depictions of other models, are featured in magazines targeted at women. Advertisers looking to sell products (especially beauty products) count on women to evaluate the models in relation to themselves. The nude body in advertising posits a normative body as the object of (heterosexual) male desire and one that women are supposed use to critique their own bodies, noting how they fall short of being desirable to men and living up to the expectations of other women.

Men, too, can fall into traps regarding the female body. I posted several articles on a social news site as part of my artifact and engaged several users about it. One of the images I posted for the article was one of Eva Mendes in a PETA advertisement but several users quickly derailed the comment thread when they began assessing her looks and at one point several gave her a “score” as though it were a competition (Newsvine). I got the sense from the discussion that not only are men expected to evaluate women, but they are also all supposed to reach the same conclusion. When I asked one commenter what he or she thought was unattractive, they linked me to an image of two women from a porn site and allowed me to decide which was unattractive, because presumably there is only one answer.

But for as bad as it is to not find the right women attractive, it is infinitely worse to find men attractive. In Eck’s study, when looking at male nudes males asserted their masculinity and heterosexuality in quite the opposite way than they did with female nudes. Instead of feeling the right to judge other males, male respondents felt indifferent or asserted their heterosexuality verbally, fearing that their being in the presence of male nudes would code them as homosexual (700). Even women preferred the female nude. In one case, a female respondent felt that the male nude was attractive, but “would rather just see him like that [above the waist].” (699). Several women found the nudes distasteful and a few of the ones that admitted they were attracted to the male models also noted that they were ashamed of it (703).

So it seems that positive or non-neutral attention to male nudes is perceived strictly as within the domain of male homosexuals (Eck 700-703). And while the sexualization of men has certainly increased (Reichert 408-409), the marginalization of male images as for the homosexual gaze seems to still largely inform advertising memes, necessitating that advertisers create images that don’t appear to be intended for male homosexual consumption. I analyzed several images on my blog that are largely in keeping with this. Like images of females, images of males seem to propagate a normative body. But unlike the images of females, those of males are not focused on beauty or eroticism but an ideal of masculinity. While female models are often in poses that emphasize their butts and breasts and genitals, male models are often nude in ways meant to display their fitness. Female models’ breasts and vaginas are usually covered (though in the case of print ads, not always), but they’re covered in ways that draw attention to them (though covered, the shape and size of the breasts are often made very apparent, for example). In men, however, the covering of the penis is subtle, usually by something casually draped over it, positions that naturally hide the penis, or in some cases jeans or above the waist shots.

In addition to this, advertisements deflect the homosexual gaze by putting men in silly situations. Curiously these situations, for some reason, allow the nude models to be less than ideal. That isn’t to say that their bodies are not policed in certain cases, rather there is the admission of male bodies that are imperfect, real even. This is one of the biggest differences between nude men and women in advertising. Male bodies that break the masculine ideal at least have a place, somewhere, in advertising. Women, on the other hand, are rarely featured in a normal state, and are often nude in situations that are abnormal. This extends beyond the world of advertising. Television sitcoms and movies frequently feature heterosexual couples in which there is a man outside of normative body type dating or married to women held to the impossible standards for women.

But by focusing on advertising I do not mean to downplay the importance of human agency. Rather, I chose to look at advertising because it survives as a result of human agency. Advertising is not an apparatus independent of human will. An ad campaign’s effectiveness and a product’s (often even a brand’s) very survival depend on advertisements accurately reflecting the qualities that target audiences value most.

Advertising, then, is a process through which the desires (not reality) of mainstream culture are mirrored and sometimes manufactured. This, then, brings us back around to Eck’s research. Her observations say most profoundly that mainstream audiences are complicit in not only driving the heterosexual and masculine ideals that permeate even advertising directed at women, but enforcing a particular brand of both that mocks reality. The need for advertisers to sell products combined with their need to appeal to a heterosexual (and often homophobic) audience creates the recipe for the nudes we see in contemporary advertising.

Works Cited:

Eck, Beth. "Men are much Harder: Gendered Viewing of Nude Images." Gender & Society 2003: 691-710. SAGE Journals. Indiana University Libraries - Bloomington. 11 Feb 2009 .

LaTour, Michael S., and Tony L. Henthorne. "Female Nudity: Attitudes Toward the Ad and the Brand, and Implications for Advertising Strategy." Jounal of Consumer Marketing 1993: 25-32. ABI/INFORM Global. ProQuest. Indiana University Libraries - Bloomington. 31 Jan 2009 .

Newsvine. “Nudity and Social Causes: PETA and Women” 21 Apr 2009

Reichert, Tom. "The Prevalence of Sexual Imagery in Ads Targeted to Young Adults." Journal of Consumer Affairs 2003: 403-412. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Indiana University Libraries - Bloomington. 12 Feb 2009 .

Also posted here

Friday, April 24, 2009

Sexual battery isn't important!


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Angie Zapata and the body

This week Allen Andrade was convicted of first degree murder and of hate crimes for killing Angie Zapata because "he found out" she was a transwoman. @justiceforangie liveblogged most (or all, I'm not sure) of the trial on twitter.

I came across the feed a few days ago and realized that I haven't at all addressed the issues of transmen and transwomen in advertising. Part of this, of course, is probably for the same reason I've failed to mention anything concrete about disability in advertising either. My lack of knowledge (both academically and socially) of either group, I'm ashamed to say, made it easy for me to overlook them though they were well within the scope of this project.

I've already finished the paper based around this project and am actually sitting just outside of the class I'm about to turn it in at, and I feel bad that I can't take some time to add issues I missed to my project.

One of the things that stood out to me during while I was reading the liveblog was this tweet:

@justiceforangie: Saying finding out that Angie has male genitalia was sufficient "provocation." #zapata

The entire defense was based not around the idea that Andrade didn't commit the crime, but that his finding out (though I think they proved he already knew) about Zapata being transgender was reason enough to cause a reaction that ended in her death. This transphobic defense was a surprise to no one.

It says quite a bit about what people expect of the human body that these people would even consider trying to justify a lethal action by saying that this man discovering a penis is provocation.

Thankfully, though, the jury knew otherwise and this man is going to jail.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

<3 essentialism

Apparently it is impossible for a mother to do certain awful things.

Will this challenge notions of what motherhood is or will the argument
I that she's not really a mother?

Also, are there other famous cases like this?

Not just like this, but in which a mother has done something "no mother" would do?

This a just a test

Setting something up to post from my iPod. So I can post links from my
RSS reader (and during class!)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Men are silly

I'm almost done with this project and I just realized that I haven't really dealt with men in advertising. Part of this is because so few of the ads I've been dealing with have had men in them.

As with ads with female nudes, the types male bodies shown are a select (normative) few (sorry I can't create an embeddable one that works).

It comes as no surprise that these ads are obsessed with the fit male body. Looking at them, it's so hard to believe in a world without rippling muscles and perfectly smooth skin or people who aren't too not white or too old. The nudity especially seems employed to show off the muscles (this is particularly obvious in the Beckham underwear ad).

But the male models are allowed to act much differently than female ones in most cases. Of course there is the passive/active binary that permeates advertising, but there is another that especially pertains to nudity.

There is a sexy/silly dichotomy. Though male models can be sexual (but for who?), unlike females they are often depicted in silly situations. And it is often these silly situations that allow for males to be shown with body types that do not fit the normative model.

In this ad, for example, the message polices the imperfect body "Make the naked go away!!"), but unlike a good number of ads with nude women, it admits that the male body exists in an "imperfect" state.

PETA, again, makes a great source to go to for this dichotomy. Does their treatment of women apply similarly to men?

Not really. In one series, "Ink not mink" the men and women seem equally passive and not very sexual as the models are mostly just showing off their tattoos. And there is one maybe sexual image of a man in their "Bare skin, not bear skin" series.

But while their media center is populated with print ads of women laying or standing sensually, breasts covered by their arms (or by someone else's arms or by a rabbit), men who aren't clothed or tattooed are, well...


And this isn't limited to PETA:

What are these people doing naked on chairs? Selling them! I guess it might be a stretch to call this silly. I certainly find it amusing. Notice how, for some reason, the man is large and the woman is similar to every other woman in ads that aren't about weight loss.


The man's body isn't abhorrent, but have you ever seen an ad with a woman that was doing anything but seducing (or having a shampoorgasm)?

But where are the penises? Women have breasts (they're what they rest their arms on) and there's really no shyness about vaginas. In most cases they're covered, sure, but the point of covering them seems to be to draw attention to them. In most ads with nudity, though, the covered penis seems more to be about hiding it. Who wants to see a penis? Unless you can make it funny:

When the penis isn't really a penis, that's okay. Because seeing a real penis makes you gay (or a girl).

That brings me to one of the main points of this project: audience. Ads featuring sexualized and objectified women are dominant even in entertainment media targeted at women. These (and probably most) ads are meant for a heterosexual male audience, and it makes sense that this would be the same for ads featuring men. The consideration of this audience, then, limits the content of advertising, and the heterosexual male audience has much influence over what kind of nudity is acceptable.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Single moms are bad!

I'll have a link later, but I just saw a Pew poll saying about 2/3 of Americans think single mothers hurt society. :(

update: here's the link

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Age and nudity (women)

Given the state of current advertising I'd expect you to assume that old age was a sin. We're openly hostile about age. And aged models are really only good for selling life insurance or anti-aging creams. And they'd never be nude. Right? Apparently not.

A banned Dove commercial says otherwise (I don't know how old this is, but it's relevant!):

Not only do they look older than between 14 and 20, but they're naked! Why? Because Dove is pro-age, of course.

Well, sort of. First, head over to Dove's products page (if you want). On the right there's a dropdown menu that says "Select a need". The third one from the bottom is...anti-aging! And any product you select (it gives you a choice of three other categories) will bring you options from a product line called pro-age.

So, it's probably just clever marketing on Dove's part. Sure, real beauty campaign and all of that. And they do admit that beauty is ageless or whatever. But when you're selling your "pro-age" product in the "anti-aging" section it's hard not to come across as...anti-age.

At best the Dove ad suggests that age is just a number. Even in this scenario their pro-age line exists because age may be a number, but the aged body is still unacceptable. And it is precisely this that allows these older women to be nude in these ads. They may be old, but they don't look it.

Alright. Nothing's changed. Crisis averted!

(related: Cloris Leachman in a PETA ad. And she's not nude!?)

Physical disability

I'm not sure what to write about this. I don't have any examples. I can't think of an ad I've ever seen employing a model with a disability. I'm sure there are some...

It's probably pretty telling that I didn't even notice until now that models with disabilities are largely underrepresented in advertising.

I wonder what else I'm missing...

Friday, April 10, 2009

Social Causes: PETA and women - this is the long post

The ever critical internet, and probably an academic study or two, yields no shortage of criticisms aimed at PETA. Take a look at their media center and you can probably see (if not understand) that much of this criticism surrounds PETA's use of women.

Before getting into this, though, it'll be useful to discuss advertising in general. Particularly studies about nudity and advertising. Research on nudity and brand recall has shown that nudity is great for grabbing attention, but may adversely affect brand recall. One theory is that consumers see the ad and pay little attention to the brand.

What makes PETA an interesting case to look at is that it isn't exactly selling a product or service. It's selling a social cause, and is arguably the most well known animal rights group in America. As a result, they don't quite have a need for brand recall. What they do need, however, is attention. The same studies that assert that nudity interferes with brand recall admit that nudity attracts a viewer's interest. (Note that in the study I'm specifically referring to, they found this to be the case with female nudes. They did not test with male nudes. )

It is this quality, I think, that makes PETA worth looking at. Their need for attention necessitates that they be particularly savvy in knowing what appeals to consumers. This more than anything (except maybe underwear and lingerie ads, which I'll cover in another post) exposes what it means to be a nude body in public.

Take this ad for example:

Like all of the other media containing female nudes on PETA's site, in this one being nude means being thin and curvy (potentially involving digital manipulation), feminine, young (nudity and age is on my list of posts to do), having flawless skin and white (even if she's not). It means having muscles that are toned but big enough to give the impression of strength. It also means not engaging the camera or the audience, but allowing them to consume you.

This image, on the other hand, is the antithesis of a PETA advertisement, as it depicts a real female. One with weight and skin flaws just like everyone else.

Why does PETA think that we'd rather see someone so flawless? Is it because we would really rather see her? Of course. But why? What is it about age, weight, masculinity or color that makes advertisers erase them to to try to appeal to us?

I think that this campaign, whether it means to or not, especially exposes the confusion surrounding nudity. "I'd rather go naked than wear fur" suggests some sort of dilemma. It appears as though the models are given the two equally undesirable choices of going nude or wearing fur. Obviously they choose fur, but none of the models seem uncomfortable with it. In fact, they all seem rather happy to be nude. This construction captures the tension between cultural and moral sanctions against public nudity (and sometimes even private nudity) and it's increasing use in most media. This post is long enough, and I'm still developing this point, so I'll most likely post in this later.

(Photo modeled by Amber Smith)

(also, this was cross-posted on Newsvine.)