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.)