Thinking Sociologically About Advertising
I love showing the film, Killing Us Softly to my students. Jean Kilbourne does a great job of showing us the advertising in societal context and how it is a mirror of objectification. She shares her vast collection of ads from many years and explains how their patterns illustrate how our society objectifies women in the service of maintaining our definitions of femininity and masculinity--and gendered power structures.
The film also discusses how women’s and men’s bodies are used to advertise products in very different ways. The images reinforce the power of heterosexual men over others and the trivialization of women and values linked to women and femininity. She connects these images with eating disorders, self esteem, and domestic violence.
While no film or video is perfect, this one captures the essence of how advertising surrounds us and reflects us, how we are being sold products through sexualized images and the myriad of connections to social problems that this creates.
After I show the film, I ask students to write for a few minutes about their reaction to the film. We all find this useful reflection time to process what they saw and decide what they think about all the issues therein. Once I call a stop to the writing, I ask for their reactions. Reactions range from “shocking” and other supportive comments to “that’s bull” or other denials of the patterns Kilbourne identifies.
This semester some students reacted with hopelessness. They stated that they don’t see that anything can change and that we’re doomed to be subject to these pressures since the power always wins.
I was not surprised at this reaction, as it is a common one in many sociology classes. Learning about the depth of stratification and exploitation can be demoralizing and depressing. However, it is imperative to realize that one can’t attempt to effectively solve a problem unless one understands the problem.
If, as the video suggests, advertising is a problem, can we fix it? If we pressure advertisers to stop using sexualized images to sell products that have nothing to do with sex, will that work? Theoretically, consumers do have some power since if they stop buying, production and advertising could change. However, does that really work?
On our most recent Thanksgiving and “Black Friday,” a woman used pepper spray Walmart to get to a half-price video game system. Even though many groups called for a boycott of big business or halting all shopping on Black Friday, most stores were full of shoppers.
Calling for an end to shopping isn’t the answer. People still need beds to sleep in, tables to gather around, and food to eat . Calling for an awareness of where one’s products come from might have an impact. However, the choice of shopping at farmer’s markets or other truly local businesses is often limited to those with the means. Poor people don’t always have such local sources of food or products available, and even if they do they may not be affordable.
The advertising ”problem” is not an isolated one that can be addressed by focusing on the advertising industry. Who makes their work possible? The organizations that need to sell products. They often give some guidelines for how to sell their products even if the advertising and fashion industries do very creative work to promote them.
So, to address the way advertising works, one must address the companies that produce those goods that are being advertised. Is each company complicit and responsible for the state of advertising and its impact on society? Sociologically the answer is both yes and not fully.
Yes-- a company does have control over how to market its products and it pays ad agencies to do that campaign. But I say they are not fully to blame because both products sold and the advertising used to market them recreates patterns that reflect the needs of our economy.
There is more to advertising that just trying to sell a product. Advertising reflects and reproduces various sociological phenomena and is a good starting point to begin to think sociologically.