The one rule of good advertising is this: you have to convince the buyer that they really, truly, need your product.
Sometimes, people need the product no matter what. If you’re selling housing, or food, or electricity, your work has been done for you.
Other times, the product is not so necessary. If that’s the case, there are two options: either you create a need, or you tie an idea, like happiness, or companionship, or adventure, to your product. You can fall in love or start a revolution—all for just $39.99!
One category of products that are nice, but not intrinsically necessary to survival, is the field of cosmetics and fashion. It can be fun to play around with makeup or wear clothes you like, but that fact does not create enough demand on the market for the sellers to make much of a profit. In order to cement control over customers, the beauty industry has created an ever-narrowing definition of what it means to be beautiful. There is no need per se to wear mascara, or for your lips to be the color of the Maybelline lipstick “Constant Toast,” so companies use sexism to create one.
In patriarchal society, women are treated like objects for men’s consumption. They are supposed to put themselves on display by looking impeccable all the time and accepting unwanted comments about their bodies from outside observers. Sometimes, women are criticized or even attacked if they refuse affection or argue with men, because they are daring to assert themselves as their own person instead of letting themselves get pushed around. Beauty companies play off of women’s objectification, claiming that their product will let you fulfill your duty of becoming an appealing, consumable object. This, they imply, is what will make you matter as a person. This will make you whole.
It’s just what they have to do.
Recently, however, these businesses have been coming under fire for this. It turns out people don’t like being told they’re ugly all the time. Who would have thought?
So the companies (or their competitors who want to prove they’re better) keep playing the same game. They just sell a different idea: righteousness. “We’re not like those other ads,” they imply. “We’re empowering.”
Here’s one example: Dove, which sells beauty products and soap, produced a video in which a forensic sketch artist drew women twice, first according to their descriptions of themselves, and second according to another person’s description. “You’re more beautiful than you think,” claims the video, and indeed, the second drawings did appear more conventionally attractive than the first. Many observers praised the video as feminist, since on a shallow level, it appeared to make women feel better about themselves.
In fact, the concepts of empowerment and advertising are fundamentally at odds with each other. Dove’s clip still upholds conventional Western standards of beauty as ideal; it just reassured these specific women that they met those standards. One of the “ugly” sketches showed a face with smaller lips, a rounder face, and thinner eyebrows than its more “beautiful” counterpart; its subject described the sketch as “closed off and fatter.” But what’s wrong with being closed off, or fat? What’s wrong with looking like the first picture instead of the second? Imagine looking like the first picture, or knowing for a fact you’re not conventionally attractive, and realizing that even body-positivity campaigns don’t include you.
These beauty standards are especially harmful to women of color. In India, Unilever, the same corporation who owns Dove, was accused of racism for selling Fair & Lovely, a skin-bleaching cream. In an effort to salvage its progressive image, it created a scholarship fund for girls and centered its advertising around nominally feminist subjects, such as employment. “I realized that the obstacle to obtaining my dream job was my skin,” explains one woman in a Fair & Lovely Commercial. Instead of addressing colorism and racism, however, the ad goes on to show the woman using the bleach to achieve her dream of becoming a reporter.
It’s not an accident that light skin is considered beautiful, both in India and around the world; white people helped justify colonization and slavery by portraying their victims as ugly. This especially affects women, making it especially egregious that Fair & Lovely would pretend to support women while upholding such a violent construction.
They tell you you’re beautiful, then turn around and sell products designed to fix your “flaws.” If you’re beautiful the way you are, why do you need anti-cellulite or skin-bleaching cream? Advertising is inherently exploitative: it has to break you down in order to build you back up again. The message is still that you are only important if you’re “beautiful,” and that you’re not beautiful on your own, you have to buy their product.
This doesn’t just happen in a vacuum: By misusing feminist rhetoric in their advertisements, they alter America’s perception of what feminism is. Women are misled to think it’s empowering to be complicit in their own oppression, to continue defining themselves by how others see them. Dove, for example, defined a woman’s “real beauty” as how observers see her, with damaging implications for people who know that others don’t like their looks. That’s not to say that women shouldn’t have the right to make themselves look nice, or sexy, or whatever—it just means we have to look critically at what’s considered beautiful, and who decided to make it that way.
By selling feminism along with the actual product, the beauty industry also turns feminism itself into a commodity. Women’s rights (or “empowerment”—businesses seem to love that word) are treated as something you get when you buy a product, which ends up treating the rights themselves like commodities. Feminism becomes an aesthetic, an identity, and a watered-down one at that. You’re not smashing the patriarchy when you buy “empowering” lingerie or by dyeing your armpit hair pink; consumer choices by isolated individuals do nothing to erase centuries of prejudice.
Advertising is, by definition, manipulation. This isn’t something that can be changed, or even something that necessarily should be, and it’s nice that advertisers are at least playing at feminism instead of being so obvious about their sexism like they were in the past.
Just don’t expect change to come from within an industry that has made billions off the misogynist status quo. And don’t base your politics on advertisements.