We want to focus on positive feelings of confidence and pleasure, self-esteem, social acceptance, joy and happiness; read the brief. Yet, for as long as I can remember, advertising beauty products only makes the world uglier.
I knew this long before I chose marketing as a career. You know it too. Every ad for skin-lightening (or whitening) creams and other products have depicted women with darker skin as miserable; everything they do or want to do is problematic. Initially, it was about getting married, then it became about finding jobs and making a career and then it got wrapped up in being healthy. During this time, beauty product advertisers started to tell men the same thing. We cannot deny the power advertising has had over how society is influenced. It would be an understatement to say that many (if not most) of our expectations of beauty (especially feminine beauty) are shaped by advertising. We have long been clued into the belief that a woman’s value hinges upon her ability to look younger – longer. And that a bar of soap is really made from the fountain of youth!
I see two fundamental problems with what industry leaders (Johnson & Johnson, P&G and Unilever in particular) and most local players have been communicating to their audiences.
Self-consciousness disguised as confidence
Your hair texture, type and colour are not pretty enough. Our shampoo, conditioner, hair colour, will make it look prettier. And your body hair is gross! Your skin is not white enough. It does not matter if you are a guy or a girl, get clearer, whiter, paler, diamond-studded, starch-pressed skin, so you can be the best at whatever you want to be. Even in the age of Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, we have Mahira Khan boldly promoting body shaming and objectification on a basketball court. I remember Sana Mir (former captain of Pakistan Women’s Cricket Team) giving everyone a dose of reality with her comment: “Make no mistake; you need strong arms, not smooth arms on a sports field.”
Despite the fact that most folks with crazy money are pretty ugly by the stereotypical definition of beauty in our society, most consumers seem to believe otherwise. A double whammy for sexism and fair skin bias says “hell yeah!”
Beauty has social advantages
People flocking to stores, spas and clinics seeking beauty enhancements are motivated by a society that places a high value on being attractive. Like it or not, being good-looking offers tremendous social advantages. In a nationwide survey by an Indian beauty brand, attractive people are judged to be smarter, better lovers, more likely to marry and earn more. Yes, wow! Sneakers that tone your butt, creams that make you shine like a diamond and injections that take 10 years off your face. Who in their right mind would believe that? Despite the fact that most folks with crazy money are pretty ugly by the stereotypical definition of beauty in our society, most consumers seem to believe otherwise. A double whammy for sexism and fair skin bias says “hell yeah!”
Nothing will change overnight in this multibillion-dollar beauty industry, which encompasses makeup, skin and haircare, fragrances, cosmetic surgery, health clubs, diet pills and who knows what else. By preaching this mantra, advertisers persuade people that they will be new and improved if they use their products and so continue to produce a society desperate to conform to an ideal and impossible standard. We have long been conditioned to view a woman’s face as a mask and her body as an object (something separate from, and more important than, her real self) in constant need of alteration and improvement. Lately, we are being taught the same about men and their bodies. We are made to feel dissatisfied and rather ashamed of ourselves as we learn to objectify ourselves.
People may argue advertising alone did not cause these problems; I say it contributes to them by creating an environment in which distorted body images are presented as acceptable ideals. This is the tragedy; we are constantly internalising these stereotypes (as evidenced by the rise of teen beauty bloggers on social media). If we accept these degrading images, we actualise them.
Many colleagues in advertising believe things have changed. But I know that replacing blatant objectification with a more subtle approach is not the solution. Portraying a woman as a superwoman, who manages to do everything at home and at work (with the help of a product, of course) or as a liberated woman who owes her independence and self-esteem to the brands she uses is not change. This new image does not represent real progress; rather, it creates the illusion of progress and reduces complex socio-political problems to mundane personal ones.
People may argue advertising alone did not cause these problems; I say it contributes to them by creating an environment in which distorted body images are presented as acceptable ideals. This is the tragedy; we are constantly internalising these stereotypes (as evidenced by the rise of teen beauty bloggers on social media). If we accept these degrading images, we actualise them. By choosing to ignore the seriousness of the global influence and the subliminal impact of beauty advertising, we ignore a very powerful educational force. Can we pretend this does not affect our self-image, our ability to relate to each other and destroy any awareness and action that might help to change this ugly climate?
Umair Saeed is COO, Blitz Advertising.