December 22, 2011

Thinking Sociologically About Advertising

imageBy Sally Raskoff

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.


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After watching this documentary on three separate occasions and taking part in the same kinds of classroom discussions that you described, I am certainly more aware of the overt gender inequality and sexualization of advertising. Sexual references along with images of male domination and female submissiveness will likely continue to be a part of American societal norms for the foreseeable future.

This is a great video. Here is a link to watch the previous edition, Killing Us Softly 3, in its entirety.

hi there, i was shown killing us softley in my english class and i think it is a really good movie that describes how men and women are both used differently in advertising today. men are shown for there power and authoirty while women are shown for there body parts and sex. i think this was a great article about the movie.

I would agree with the author that the clip from Killing Us Softly is a good representation as to how advertising can manipulate the sociological world. By changing the appearence of the person or place in the advertisement, it can portray something that can seem too good to be true.

In my sociology class, I have been reading about gender roles and discrimination against minorities, including women. This article really fit in with this topic. So many commercials and other advertisements paint a picture of women being dependent, stay at home moms, or simply something to abuse.

It appears that the only solution is government intervention to prevent these images from being shown. No? I used to be a hardcore Libertarian until I learned and get involved with these issues. The people do not have enough power. Unfortunately it seems like it's going to have to be a top-down solution.

I choose this Blog article because I had seen the film killing us softly 4 last semester in class and really enjoyed it. Not because I agreed on all the views of Jean Kilbourne, but rather because I find it interesting to see what companies do to make their product the one that will be picked over the many thousands of similar products that may be out there. Personally I feel that when it comes to advertising there is a problem when unrelated products are sold using sex and or masculine or feminine characteristics that are not true or are a representation of a small percentage of society. But yet the problem that I see as even bigger, is that companies in this society have to go to these measures in order to appeal to many millions who look for this in the products that they buy. From this I come to the thought that as we have come accustomed to sex in advertisements, we now expect it in order for us to buy a product. What used to be the companies fault, is now ours as a consumer.
In connecting this with sociology and the sociological topics that we have gone over in class, I can see how when we look at the values of society today, we see that they have changed over time in response to the desensitization of how companies package and market their products. Gone are the days where you would be appalled at the sight of a half naked lady on a billboard selling ice cream. Values and morals have changed in society and so to have the techniques used to sell products. This is taught to children at a young age, confirming that socialization is a two-fold process; first society teaches it’s members and then secondly, members learn and internalize the values and norms. I can even from looking back on my own life, tell that over the years of viewing these advertisements I have become desensitized to these morals and values that have digressed over the years. If this keeps on going it is a worry to myself where our society will end up in 20 years from here.
When Raskoff speaks of the power that heterosexual men have other others, I am reminded of the fact that sociologically the majority has power over the minority. In this society, the gender with the minority of power is women, and this is what the Film “Killing me Softly 4” reflects. Women are used to sell products, devalued and manipulated in a way that represents the pervasiveness of these representations and just how deeply those representations penetrate our understandings of each other.

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